Prepared to Care - Yom Kippur 5777 - 10 Tishrei 5777 / 12 October 2016
Nov 9th 2016

The story of Chesley Sullenberger became the inspiration for a recently released film Sully, a drama about his decision to land an Airbus on the Hudson River. Its two engines had been stalled by the intake of a flock of Canada geese shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport.

Celebrated for saving all 155 people on board, Sullenberger was also investigated to ascertain whether he might have done something less risky. In the film, he comments to his co-pilot that he had delivered more than one million passengers over the course of 40 years, but “in the end, I’ll be judged on 208 seconds”.

A wise insight from our tradition:

הוא היה אומר …שאין לך אדם שאין לו שעה ואין לך דברשאין לו מקום:

[Ben Azzai] would also teach: … do not discount anything. For there is no one who has not their hour, and no thing that has not its place.       (Avot 4.3)

Yom Kippur is not only about reviewing our past actions and resolving to do better, it is also a type of trial run. We mentally prepare ourselves for something that we don’t want to happen, but must be prepared to meet. I believe that the mitzvah system of Judaism is intended to train us for those moments.

Rabbi Simla’i in the Talmud (Makkot 23b-24a) divides the mitzvot into affirmative actions and prohibited behaviours. He identifies 248 positive mitzvot as numerically associated with the organs and skeletal structure of the human being and 365 negative mitzvot as equivalent to the days of the solar calendar. His homily became the tradition that there are 613 (taryag) mitzvot which represent the totality of Jewish life. 

Although some rabbis refuse to offer a hierarchy of mitzvot, Rabbi Simalai’s colleagues try to find which mitzvot are essential to guide life. One suggestion is to follow the 11 virtue ethics articulated in Psalm 15: ה מִי־יָג֣וּר בְּאָהֳלֶ֑ךָ מִֽי־יִ֝שְׁכֹּ֗ן בְּהַ֣ר קָדְשֶֽׁךָ׃

Eternal One, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
One who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,
and speak the truth without deception;
who does not speak ill of others,
does no evil to friends,
nor reproach their neighbors;
who avoids the wicked,
but donors those who have awe for the Eternal;
who maintains a promise even to their own harm;
who do not lend money at high rates,
nor take money to injure the innocent.
One who does these things shall never be shaken.

Another proposes that the three principles of the prophet Micah be our guide:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִםאֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ

It has been told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of  you: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God ... [Micah 6:8]

Seeking even more clarity, another rabbi cites two demands from the Haftarah that we chanted this morning:

כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר ה שִׁמְר֥וּ מִשְׁפָּ֖ט וַעֲשׂ֣וּ צְדָקָ֑ה

Thus says the Eternal: Keep justice and do righteousness ... [Isa. 56:1]

Finally, the rabbis agree that the prophet Habakuk based them all on one principle: The righteous shall live by faith. [Hab. 2:4]

צַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָת֥וֹ יִחְיֶֽה׃

Living and acting in accordance with what we truly believe is essential. But knowing what to do is critical to when we have to act.

The Talmud also organizes mitzvot into those that are בין אדם לחברו (interpersonal) and  בין אדם למקום (related to God). In medieval philosophical thought, some mitzvot are identified as common to all humans and others are specific to the Jewish people.

I’d like to look at the mitzvot in another way.

There are mitzvot that are regular and recurrent, for which we can be intentional. The observance of Shabbat requires thinking, in advance, what we will prepare for the meal, when to light candles, where we might pray, and—if we are away from home—how we might bring Shabbat into our vacation.

The same is true for the mitzvah of kashrut. Where and what will we eat? Can I source kosher food on the road? Will my diet be salad or fish at the meeting?

Tzedakah also involves preparation. Are UJA and the synagogue my prime gifts? Do I invest in Israel Bonds? Do I respond to every mail request? How might my tzedakah have the most impact? What will be my budget for tzedakah?

The mitzvah of prayer is not just about attending shul. What about cultivating the inwardness that allows us to be in touch with the source of our being? Can we take a few minutes at the start of each day to say Modeh Ani? I am thankful to you God, for another day and the opportunity to do something meaningful. Shema Yisrael. You are the singular God of life, the One that permeates all of existence. I am not in complete control.

Some mitzvot are seasonal. Shofar. Fasting. H̱anukkah candles. Eating matzah. Sukkot is on my radar screen for next week. Building and decorating our sukkah. Guests. Which lulav and etrog will be the most beautiful?

There are some commandments that occur only occasionally in our lives. For example, the mitzvah of brit milah or marriage.

Others that are circumstantial. They come at unexpected moments and we can’t really anticipate when they will occur. You all know that there are berakhot recited before and after eating. You may not know that there are berakhot for seeing lightning, hearing thunder, meeting a person of great wisdom, standing before a head of government, witnessing trees in blossom, escaping unscathed from an accident. We might not plan for these moments, but our tradition trains us to be aware of what is happening around us, to take notice of what has just occurred.

There are also times when a mitzvah presents itself as we are walking, in our car, or at a sacred site in Israel. People asking for change. Should I have coins or a granola bar in anticipation?

All of these mitzvot, whether common or occasional, seasonal or daily, require a level of training and consciousness to enable us to respond properly when the situation arises. The mitzvot train us to be ready when called.

Occasionally, as with Sully, there are lifesaving moments. Last year, a 96 year old retired chest surgeon was at dinner in his retirement home in Cincinnati when a female resident began to choke at the dinner table. The doctor got behind her and administered several upward thrusts with a fist below the chest until the piece of meat popped out of her throat and she could breathe again.

Henry Heimlich’s technique for dislodging food or objects caught in people’s throats has been credited with saving thousands of lives since he invented it in 1974, but this was the first time he had ever done it himself. “I knew about all the lives my manoeuvre has saved and I have demonstrated it many times but here, for the first time, was someone sitting right next to me who was about to die.”

Over the years, I have been present during medical emergencies. I have been trained to respond, but mostly, my role has been to calm people and make sure there is space for a physician or an emergency team to work unimpeded.

Last spring, on a flight from Tel Aviv, I had just turned off a terrible film and noticed that we were over the Atlantic when I heard a thump. A call for help. I went to the other isle, saw a man slumped over and called for a doctor. A Canadian doctor and two Israeli physicians began to provide emergency care. I asked people to sit and clear the aisle so that the medical professionals could do their urgent work.

The partner of the affected individual called out to me. I have known Goldie for many years. Her former husband designed the two panels that flank our Aron Kodesh. My role was to support her during this crisis.

Solomon was carried to the rear of the cabin. The galley kitchen became an emergency room. Chest compression, oxygen, defibrillator and IV drip were quickly brought into use. Unfortunately, the "incident" was massive and immediate.

We had to inform Goldie that Solomon had died. The Canadian physician, Lawrence Zoberman, and I told Goldie that we would care for her and help guide her. The El Al crew carefully wrapped his body and placed it across the rear centre seats of the plane. I sat with Goldie in the next set of seats with curtains drawn to provide privacy. Everything was carried out with great dignity and concern.

I spent the next five hours with Goldie. One of the flight attendants also needed a listening ear. It was the first time she had witnessed a death and she could imagine this happening to her grandfather.

The Torah has a term for someone who dies without a support system. Met mitzvah. There is no one to deal with the burial. One of our most important mitzvot is to attend to and bury that person. A kohen gadol, usually not allowed to attend to the dead of his own family, is even obligated to leave the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur if no one else is available.

That is why Israel goes to great lengths to reclaim the bodies of fallen soldiers. We see this with rescue workers who dig beneath the rubble left by hurricanes and earthquakes in search not only of living survivors but of dead bodies.

The captain of the flight brought Goldie and me to the cockpit to make contact with friends in Toronto. Unfortunately, it was hard to recall the phone numbers and no one we called was available. Although the flight crew was quite sympathetic and gracious, we couldn't tie up their space. I eventually called Lynn Levy at Beth Tzedec. She contacted friends of the couple who met us after the police and coroner had released the passengers.

Some practical lessons from all this:

  • If you experience indigestion, particularly before an international flight, have a medical specialist examine you.
  • Make sure that you carry an accessible list of all your medications and personally important people.
  • Fly with El Al; there are usually Jewish physicians on board.

No one should die or be buried alone. Moshe Halbertal, a recent guest scholar, taught us that for Maimonides, “Mourning is a mechanism for constructing the basic social order, signifying the membership and status of a person in the community”. Rabbi Daniella Szuster noted that dying alone, with no one knowing about our death nor caring for the burial is “the archetype of maximum loneliness, vulnerability, and abandonment of a human being”.

On more than a few occasions, I have sat with someone who died, waiting for official confirmation of death. It is a way that I can give dignity to the person and comfort to the family.

I once flew to New Jersey for a funeral. Sadly, I was the only one in attendance. My presence was a statement that this person mattered to me and God.

Today we reflect on the brevity and fragility of all life. On Yom Kippur, we read the words of Unetaneh Tokef. Do we internalize the words?

While some are trained to respond to these types of situations, most of us are not. I hope that none of you are ever faced with a met mitzvah. But if the situation arises, the discipline and training of mitzvot is intended to give you direction and spiritual strength. As Sully said, “These challenges, when and if they occur, arrive very much on their own schedule. I think we have the obligation to be as prepared as one can be, when or if they do finally arrive.”

Our society, our province, our country, share responsibility for providing certain forms of basic support and health care. Now that Canada has permitted assisted dying, all levels of government also owe increased support for people dying at home or in hospice. Home support for palliative care should be a significant health priority.

This is also a challenge for us. Can we provide strong support when a person is feeling vulnerable and alone? Will you help us to regenerate our H̱esed Committee? As with the kohen gadol, it is our duty to occasionally leave our daily tasks, to turn to our fellow human beings who live in deep solitude and vulnerability, to provide a personal touch.

Your families are blessed that you are here and able to recite Yizkor in their memory. As you do so, as you think about which mitzvot you want to make your own, we are reminded to prepare ourselves for whatever the future will bring.


Last night, I spoke with you about personal hope and how Israel represents a successful national hope for a viable, vibrant country. I discussed five anniversaries that will take place in the coming year: the composition of Hatikvah, the Zionist Congress convened by Herzl. the Balfour Declaration, the UN vote for partition and the Six Day Way.

In the midst of global uncertainty, I stressed the importance of hope—as part of our Jewish narrative and our personal lives. Our hopes and sincere efforts have helped to build the State of Israel. It still merits our support. You may not pay taxes to the State of Israel, you may not send your children into its military forces, but you can invest in its future. 

Don’t take the successes of Israel for granted. Maintain the hope that, if we act with others,we can make a difference. Today, as we remember the people who shared our lives, let’s take a few moments to do something for a better Israel and for ourselves. Please be an investor in hope.

You might also consider a double mitzvah. I use my Bond purchase to fulfil my annual pledge to Beth Tzedec. You might invest in your children or grandchildren, nieces or nephews, particularly if there is a simẖah coming up. Or you might want to support our efforts to help Israeli soldiers find Peace of Mind.  Whatever your choice, invest in hope.

Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides, p. 237

Daniella Szuster.