5772 — Yom Kippur, Yizkor — Mt. Nebo: Being at the Mountaintop

11/10/2011 at 20:19 Leave a comment

“Mt. Nebo: Being At the Mountaintop”


Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

7 October 2011


As we begin to turn our minds and hearts towards Yizkor, our memorial prayers, I am conscious of both my responsibilities in leading this holy community, and my more personal role as a son – especially as I have immersed myself in mourning my mother since this winter.  I am struck by the quote from Isaiah that is a touchstone in this special time – dirshu haShem b’himatzo k’rau’hu bihyoto karov – seek God while God can be found, call upon God when God is near.  Traditionally, this verse is a springboard for many Midrashim that depict God wandering, open and available in our lives ready to meet and be met.


In this moment, in the context of our prayers on Yom Kippur and with the weight of our admitting our wrongs and more than that, hopefully beginning to take responsibility for them, these prophetic words of Isaiah lead me directly to the Mishnah of Avot which states bluntly in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, v’shuv yom echad lifnei mita’tach, which is usually translated as, repent one day before your death.  The question is raised, how do we know when that day is – what does it mean to truly repent – should we live as if each day could be our last?


And thinking of this chilling prospect, of course I continued to move from our tradition to the watershed speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., on 3 April, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, where he uttered the uncanny words:


Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land.  And I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.


Martin Luther King was dead the next day, shot by an assassin’s bullet.  One day before his death, he had placed himself on Mt. Nebo, as Moses stood in our Torah, looking out over the Promised Land and summoning the will to be content with just looking, and not entering.  Martin Luther King has made peace with the culmination of his life.  He does not shy away from naming the troubles that are the world’s burden, and at the same time, he recognizes the limited capacity of his efforts, contained by inevitable mortality.  He advocates and works for what he wants, until he cannot do so any more.


And as we reflect on the walk of our life and the assuredness of our eventual death, whether late or soon, the words of Steve Jobs resonate today.  Steve Jobs, who has been likened to a contemporary Thomas Alva Edison, died this past week from pancreatic cancer.  He was 56 years old.  Why I am mentioning this, at this moment is because of a speech he gave in 2005 – the commencement address at Stanford University where he spoke plainly about his life lessons and about confronting his own limited existence, after he had had his first series of surgeries to confront his cancer.  At the time, he spoke simply – telling three stories – the third story perhaps is the most powerful.  Steven Jobs speaks plainly about death.  He reminds the students who are the up and coming generation that if you live each day as if it is your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.  He teaches them – that remembering that you’ll be dead soon, helps you make the real choices in life, leaving only things that are truly important.  Remembering that you are going to die is the best way to avoid the trap of thinking that you have something to lose.  Death is the single best invention of life.  Heart and intuition somehow know what we truly want to become.  Everything else is secondary, or as we might say in this context, everything else is commentary.


We are all on the summit of Mt. Nebo and we face our death.  Part of the purpose of Yom Kippur is to practice for that moment – to get the hang of our mortality and rather than have it frighten us, to become habituated to its truth.  What does it take for us to move in this way, to desert the fight of Moses, arguing for some more time, and for us to stand heroically like Martin Luther King or Steve Jobs or Rabbi Eliezer, who reminds us that every day is the day before our death and that we are on the brink of only what has come today?


We will stand in a moment, me with you, to enter the realm of shadow and memory.  We grasp for the hand of those who are not physically there and our memories resound inside the echoes of absence.  We know too that our time standing here is limited – and perhaps we cry just as hard for ourselves as we do for those who have died.  Even with the dead, how much is still undone?


Knowing that each day could be our last, what would we do differently?  What would impel us truly to change our behavior and find more meaning, more connection, and more love emanating from us, mixing with the love of those around us?


Mt. Nebo is a scary place.  One can see the next days of the future in which we have no part.  The Promised Land becomes a place of yet to be fulfilled images, a place of imagination, life that has not yet happened.  It is the opposite of nostalgia.  Martin Luther King viewed it as a place of foreboding, yet a place filled with hope — a place where real work remained to be done.  Standing on that mountaintop he said, “[that there is] trouble in the land.  Confusion all around.  But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”


We are standing at the crest.  What do we see — a world that has been influenced by our example, or one that has forgotten us as soon as we are gone?  What markers do we set up for ourselves, hoping that it is they that will bring us length of days?  As Shelley writes,


My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


What is our legacy?  How do we remember others?  We have literally worked all of our life to get to this place in the mountain.  Do we stay here or climb le’aila u’le’aila – higher and higher, still?  Is there more space to ascend or are we finished, comfortable, here?


The voices of those whom we love are calling to us now – we have activated our ears for hearing them as we opened the gates of our cemetery this past Sunday, in our Kever Avot service – bringing our dear ones into our journey.  Mt. Nebo is the intersection of the past and the future.  It is the highway of accomplishment, expectation, and regret. It is bihyoto karov — the place where God is nearest.


Let us turn towards our recollections, not to predict the future, rather to get out of our way and to listen to the many voices attached to our own, as we honor them and carry them forward with us – handing ourselves off along with our cherished ones to those who come after us, as the newly gathered may or may not remember us.  Let us make peace with this – to stand as confidently as Rabbi Eliezer, and Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs to stare down our future and to metabolize our past, knowing that it is just this present moment that most matters – to act nobly and with purpose and to be satisfied with that, in the precious moments that we have.


We are at the mountaintop — all of us together, and each of us alone.  Let us stand as we look out on the sweeping vistas of life that are open all around us — of life that has happened and life that will happen without us — and cherish the life that we have and be confident that no matter what, we can improve our days with the people around us, as we give up control and at the same time, follow our curious heart and our brimming intuition – that with our heart and with our intuition we can move into the most rewarding act of simply becoming.

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5772 — Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre — Mt. Ladoshem: Laughing, Not Lying 5772 — Yom Kippur, Neilah — Mt. No Mountain (Finale: Two Texts)

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