Rabbi Susan Elkodsi

David and I have a cousin who has a tee shirt printed with one of those “hello, my name is” stickers printed on the top left, where one would wear one of those tags. And guess what it says? Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die. Anyone who has seen the Princess Bride, and even people who haven’t, knows this line. I’m not one of them, but some people can repeat the dialogue verbatim.

In thinking about this year’s High Holy Days, and sparked by a post from a rabbi friend, this phrase kept coming to mind. My friend, Rabbi Simcha Raphael, who is an expert in Jewish views of death, dying and the afterlife, told a story of the great Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshishka, who was a Hassidic master in 19th century Poland. Reb Simcha was close to the last moments of life. As he lay in bed, his grief-stricken wife burst into tears. With calm equanimity, the dying man looked at her lovingly, and said: “Why are you crying? My whole life was only that I might learn how to die.” And with these words rolling off his lips, he died peacefully, fully accepting his finite human fate.

Yom Kippur – in fact the entire high holy day season – shares this theme of death and dying. Whether we like the liturgy and its themes or not, the reality is that multiple times over the next 25 hours we’re going to recite a vidui, a confessional. Al chet shechetanu, “For the sins we committed by doing this, that or the other thing, or by not doing them, and for the sins we committed knowingly or unknowingly, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kapeir lanu, “forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” And we end our day of fasting, prayer and introspection with Shema Yisrael, Ado-nai, Elo-haynu, Ado-nai echad, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

The text of the deathbed confession – vidui– begins by asking God to hear the prayer of the one who is, or might be dying: “Please, forgive me for all of the sins that I sinned before You throughout my lifetime. I am ashamed of deeds that I have committed. I regret things that I have done. Forgive my mistakes, for against You have I sinned. May it be Your will, my God and God of my ancestors That I sin no more. In Your great mercy, cleanse me of the sins I have committed.

The latest Gallup poll confirmed that the death rate is holding steady at 100%. It’s going to happen to the best of us and the worst of us and everyone in between. Because we live in a society that sanitizes death, that insists that we can cheat death and that it’s something we can actually avoid, we fear death. As Woody Allen famously quipped, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.” I don’t want to die either, and God willing, it won’t be for a long time, but it will happen. And when it does, I’d like to look back and feel that my life has been worth living, that I made a difference in the world, that the Divine balance sheet will have a much longer “assets” column.

All of this atoning for our sins means nothing if we don’t make an effort to change the behavior that led to these misdeeds. In a sense, the person we were last year is dying in order to give birth to a new person; one who learns from the past in order to create a better, more positive future.

On Yom Kippur, and honestly, all through our lives, we need to work at forgiving those who have wronged us, even God, if that’s how we feel. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean condoning that person’s behavior, or forgetting what happened, but it does mean that we let go of the negative emotions associated with not forgiving, or wanting to exact revenge.

I began with Princess Bride, I’ll end with it. In a video my friend Rachel shared, Mandy Patinkin, who played Inigo Montoya, spoke about the most meaningful line in the movie, where Inigo Montoya says: “I’ve been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” He went on to explain that it meant nothing to his 30-year old self at the time, but now he understands it. Our purpose in life is to embrace our fellow human beings, and to turn our darkness into light.

Yom Kippur can be a dark day as we wrestle with hunger – with the prayers, with our past, present and future – yet with each passing hour, each set of Al chets or Ashamnus that we check off, we move closer to light. As we wish each other a g’mar hatima tova, that we be sealed for good, while we ask God to make our sins pass away from us, may we be mindful of our ability to do the same.

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