A Walk in a Cemetery: Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5777

Slightly expanded version of my sermon.

On April 20, 2012 the UK Telegraph ran an article entitled "Want to Cheer Yourself Up? Go for a Walk in a Cemetery."

The piece cited a remarkable study. In 2008, researchers observed people who were either passing through a cemetery or were one block away, out of sight of the cemetery. Actors at each location talked near the participants about either the value of helping others or a control topic, and then some moments later, another actor dropped her notebook. The researchers then tested how many people helped the stranger. Dr. Ken Vail of the University of Missouri, the lead researcher on the team, explained the findings:

When the value of helping was made salient, the number of participants who helped the second confederate with her notebook was 40% greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery.

40%. What a remarkable number. Simply being in a cemetery apparently reminds people of their better angels, inspiring them to act with far greater kindness than if they had been standing a mere block away.

Yet we have spent the last two centuries running away from cemeteries. Long gone are the days when boys like Tom Sawyer would play in the local graveyard.

Perhaps the most striking testament to this trend has come in a little-known but highly significant development: the relocation of cemeteries from the center of towns to their outskirts. In ancient times, it was common for cemeteries to be located within the boundaries of the community, often in its heart. During the Middle Ages, it was common for Christians to be buried in a graveyard adjacent to the local church, typically stationed in a prominent, central location in the community. In the colonial and post-Revolution periods, these trends continued here in the New World.

With the turn of the 19th century things began to shift, at first for public health reasons. In the 1820s activists campaigned to have cemeteries moved to the outskirts of urban areas following recurring outbreaks of yellow fever.

A fairly recent excavation of Tucson's historic Alameda-Stone cemetery found that in 1875, the community decided to relocate the local cemetery from the center of town to beyond city limits. Researchers have concluded that this shift reflects a broader United States and Mexican trend. These city planners were motivated by not only health concerns, but also by considerations of urban development. By the early 1900s, the overwhelming majority of US cemeteries were located further and further from residential areas.

Beyond reasons of public health and urban planning, historian Phillip Aries has unearthed deeper roots for the flight of cemeteries: the 18th century European Enlightenment and the rise of modernity. As others have noted, in earlier times death seemed inescapable, afflicting old and young, mother and daughter. Now, for the first time, humanity began to believe in its ability to forestall, if not conquer, mortality. The discoveries of the germ and antibiotics were transformative events that irrevocably changed the face of healing. Medical knowledge surged. As the outbreak of inexplicable plagues declined - with of course too many tragic exceptions - over time the sound of death blared less incessantly than it once had. For perhaps the first time in history, humanity was able to delude itself that it had the capacity to fend off illness, at least until old age. Over the last hundred years alone, the average life expectancy worldwide, accounting for child illness, has risen from 31 in 1900 to 48 in 1950 and 67 in 2010. Even now things continue to develop at a rapid pace. The number of centenarians - 455,000 in 2009 - has been projected to rise to 4.1 million by 2050.

The movement of cemeteries, in other words, reflects the newfound faith that, for the first time, humanity could defy - or at least significantly forestall - the inevitable end that we all must meet.

What is more, a similar development has occurred in the Jewish world. R. Moshe Isserles records a custom to visit a cemetery on Erev Rosh Hashanah. How many Jews still observe this custom?

Indeed, since the 19th century there has been a movement among great Lithuanian religious personalities to avoid visiting cemeteries entirely. As noted by Rav Soloveitchik (Halakhic Man pg. 36), personalities such as the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chayyim Soloveitchik avoided visiting cemeteries whenever possible. While it remains common to visit the graves of the righteous, it seems fair to say that the fear of cemeteries doesn't hold sway in our generation in ways it did in centuries past.

But this trend - the escape from confronting our mortality - has one obvious exception. And it is no mere sideshow or afterthought; it is, in many ways, the heart and soul of our Yamim Noraim experience. I refer of course to Unetaneh Tokef.

Why does Unetaneh Tokef stand out? What makes it the most central of High Holiday prayers? In the words of Rabbi Sacks,

No prayer more powerfully defines the image of the Days of Awe than does Unetaneh Tokef. It is the equivalent in words to one of the great religious paintings by Michelangelo or Rembrandt. The language is simple, the imagery strong, the rhythms insistent and the drama intense (Koren Rosh Hashana Mahzor, pgs. 564-5).

More than any other moment in the Jewish calendar, this prayer forces us to confront our mortality.

In truth, though, this fateful prayer is riven with contradiction. First we declare that our fates lie in God's hands: on Rosh Hashanah our fates will be written, and on Yom Kippur they shall be sealed. Then we do an immediate about-face, insisting that in fact we control our own destinies: "Repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil decree."

We then conclude Unetaneh Tokef by emphasizing that we are descended from dust and shall return to that state, underscoring the smallness of humanity. Yet immediately after concluding Unetaneh Tokef we transition to the kedusha, in which we soar on high and sing with the angels.

To better understand Unetaneh Tokef, we must turn to what is arguably one of the piyyut's primary sources. In a sobering Mishnah (Avot 3:1) Akavya son of Mahalalel teaches:

Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning. From where did you come? From a putrid drop. And to where are you going? To a place of dust, worms and maggots. And before Whom are you destined to give an account and a reckoning? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Upon closer look, however, the Mishnah is puzzling. The first two points - the putrid drop and dust, worms and maggots - underscore the smallness of humankind. The final detail, that of the reckoning, is a sign of our greatness; when was the last time a maggot was called to give an accounting before God? How are we to reconcile the message of the Mishnah's opening comments with its conclusion?

One final source proves helpful in unraveling the Mishnah. A passage in Vayikra Rabba (18:1), according to numerous manuscripts, attributes this teaching not to Akavya, but Rabbi Akiva. Upon first glance, this too is odd. When did Rabbi Akiva become so morbid? He is the eternal optimist! It was Rabbi Akiva who taught that kol ma de'avad rachamana le-tav avad, whatever God does is for the good. Why the doom and gloom?

A brief review of Rabbi Akiva's life offers a new way to understand both the Mishnah and Unetaneh Tokef. Rabbi Akiva faced tremendous adversity. According to the Talmud, he lost 24,000 students, only to dust himself off and teach five more, who became the primary teachers of the Mishnah. He experienced the destruction of the Temple, yet was able to see the silver lining when foxes exited the Temple Mount. When the Romans threatened his life, Rabbi Akiva insisted that not only would he continue teaching Torah, but that he was excited to have the opportunity to give up his life, thereby fulfilling the obligation of loving God with one's entire being.

This is the teaching of Akavya and R' Akiva. Confronting our mortality is healthy but it must never paralyze us. We ponder our finitude not to paralyze ourselves, but to remind ourselves that ultimately we live for a higher purpose. The same person who descends from a putrid drop and will return to the maggots will eventually stand before God.

The same may be said of Unetaneh Tokef. True, God controls our destiny to a large degree. But that does not detract from the fact that we are not mere maggots. To a significant degree, our fates lie in our own hands as well. While we come from dust and will return to it, we are also able to ascend on high and sing with the celestial chorus. Ultimately, our lives are of cosmic significance.

A few months ago I attended the funeral of my wife's great-uncle Rabbi Maurice Lamm, one of the great rabbis and pastors of the 20th century. He used to joke that he had written two books on the Jewish life cycle, one on death and mourning and the other on love and marriage. For some reason, the former sold far better than the latter.

Rabbi Lamm wrote, in almost brooding fashion, at the beginning of his book on death and mourning:

Life is a day that lies between two nights - the night of "not yet," before birth, and the night of "no more," after death. That day may be overcast with pain and frustration, or bright with warmth and contentment. But, inevitably, the night of death must arrive.

But sitting at his funeral, I was taken by the brimming optimism and exuberant love Rabbi Lamm personified in his dealings with his friends, congregants and, above all, his family. He was a kibitzer, always ready for a good joke and a good time. How could the author of such a dark passage have embraced life so fully?

I learned the answer from his grandchildren, who described the unusual verse inscribed upon the atarah of his tallit. Taken from Samson's riddle to the Philistines, which draws upon the passage in Shoftim in which Samson takes honey from the lion's carcass, the words are "Mei'az yatza matok, from ferocity came sweetness." Rabbi Lamm's confrontation with death, in other words, did not immobilize him. Quite the opposite. It taught him to live every moment with an acute awareness of the inestimable value of each and every moment we merit here on earth. That was the deepest source of the joy with which he lived each and every day.

In the coming minutes we will hear the sound of the shofar and recite Unetaneh Tokef. We may not find joy in our walk through these metaphorical cemeteries. Still, as we recite these prayers like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Maurice Lamm, let's find inspiration and a reminder of the higher purpose for which we were placed on earth.