[Sermon] Death, Time and Desert Island Discs

Rabbi Sandra Kviat
Kol Nidre – 8 September 2019


    Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
    How do you measure, (measure) a year?
    In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee.
    In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.

    [Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
    How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?
    In truth that she learns or in times that he cried
    In bridges he burned or the way that she dies]

    (In) 525,600 minutes – how do you measure a year (in the life)?
    (Seasons of Love, Rent the Musical, Jonathan Larson)

How do we measure a year? Is it in cups of tea, goodnight stories, exams? Is it in the fights, doctor’s visits, midnight chats?

Jonathan Larson who wrote the above lyrics to the musical ‘Rent’, portrays a group of young creatives living in the shadow of poverty, homelessness, and death. Though this gritty musical is set in the desperate days of HIV/AIDS, the sense of time passing, of trying to find meaning in life, and having death on the horizon is something we can all recognise. And the musical’s title fits well with these solemn hours, for ‘rent’ does not only indicate that something is on loan, but also that something is torn. On this night of reflection we deliberately tear away the usual layers of self protection, we allow the fabric of the everyday to be rent so that we can have the time to contemplate all the issues we normally hide from view.

And we (willingly) engage with the solemnity of these days, for the experience is a form of emotional or spiritual cleansing. We know that through honest self reflection we can clear out some of the emotional mess we carry around with us. Through a spiritual declutter we might be able to move forward and forgive not just others but also ourselves.

It’s a bit like the current phenomenon of Döstädning, the Swedish art of death cleaning, where people set their affairs in order, whether to sort out heirlooms from all the clutter, or because of downsizing, or just to help you find a system to avoid misplacing your keys or phone, death cleaning is a way to make our lives more comfortable.

According to Margareta Magnusson’s new book; ‘The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”’; “Whatever your age, Swedish death cleaning can be used to help you declutter your life, and take stock of what’s important.. Radical and joyous…[It’s] an invigorating, touching and surprising process that can help you or someone you love immeasurably, and offers the chance to celebrate and reflect on all the tiny joys that make up a long life along the way…1”.

The death part sounds scary, but essentially it’s about taking stock, and taking responsibility for our messes, for no one’s immortal after all, and this practice has been taken up by people of all ages, not only for those where death is drawing near.

And yet, for most of the year we bury our heads and forge ahead with blinkers on, we try to look away, we keep ourselves busy, and tell ourselves that there’s always more time. But as the Unetaneh Tokef prayer reminds us, we don’t know who will live and who will die in the year to come.

Some of us measure our life from a specific point, a life changing event, an illness survived; ’it is X amount of years since…’ For others we count ahead to a certain age; ‘I’m so and so many years from the age that my mother/father/sibling died’. And so death can become the measure, a form of control point.

And death, or the reminder of death, is a theme running throughout the liturgy; not as a morbid fascination, but rather as a (gentle) nudge to think about the things that truly matter.

And the customs and traditions that we, to varying degrees, follow reinforce the message. For these 25 hours we enter a different realm, where we are encouraged to change our focus from short term everyday worries, to the longer term views on our horizon. By not eating or drinking, not washing or bathing, not having sex, and for some not wearing leather, we reinforce that today is different than all other days.

For the theme of death brings up our own grief. Though the intensity can lessen over time, the loss never disappears. And on nights like tonight, we feel the loss more keenly. For some it is like having a wound reopened, and we bleed like in the early days of raw grief; it is so hard remembering them, and so hard missing them.

For others the theme of death has the potential of bringing up fear,and perhaps even panic. For most of us are afraid of our own mortality. Most days we avoid having to think about it. And yet we know that that some day we will have to face it. And so instead of shying away from it, the liturgy of the High Holy Days coaxes us into thinking about all aspects of our lives, by holding death up as a mirror. And in its reflection we see our own sorrows, we are reminded of all our loved ones who are no longer with us, and the gap left behind is felt even more keenly. And the mirror might also show us our discomfort, our fear of losing control, or perhaps even panic at the thought of aging or getting ill. The mirror can help us measure our lives in ways that differ from a birthday.

Like birthdays, Yom Kippur gives us time to take stock, but where the celebration of our birth means looking back over our lives, contemplating the meaning of Yom Kippur means also looking ahead, into the unknown.

One way of doing it is what is now known as the bucket list, the register of things that we would like to do or experience before we die. And it’s not just for the grey haired amongst us, I know teenagers who have made these lists. But there’s something potentially missing on many of these bucket lists; because they only look ahead to what we would like to experience, they don’t necessarily take into account where we are right now or who we are. If not thought through carefully, they can become a long list of adventurous consumption, rather than an opportunity for reflection, and stocktake of our lives.

I was reminded of the beauty and importance of one of these lists when learning about the real life story of Kate Greene, whose life was memorialised in the book and subsequent film Mum’s List. It’s about a young woman who is dying of cancer, and her husband’s journey to try and cope with the loss. Just before she died in 2010 Kate wrote innumerable post it notes and text messages about the things she liked or hoped her husband and young children should do once she had died, so that not only they should remember her, but also find strength to live on. To make the most of everything.

    ‘Always kiss the boys goodbye and goodnight. Please teach the boys to say what they mean. Need to measure me on door frame – mummy was 5ft 1in. Take the boys to see an international rugby match. Always celebrate birthdays big time’.

It’s a real tearjerker, because of the tragic loss, but also because it reminds us that in every ordinary moment, there’s the possibility of the extraordinary.

But it is hard to write a list like that, it’s hard to sit down, to contemplate our own deaths, and actually think about what really matters in life; if we are not forced to do it. It’s like the writing of a legal will. I am always surprised by how many people do not have a will, and yet I really shouldn’t be. It took us years to finalise ours, having had it on our ‘to do’ list since before Elias was born. But it is unnerving having to even contemplate these hypothetical situations of ‘what if’ that we can shy away from it. And yet, it is imperative that we do, even if it is just to make your nearest’s ones lives easier. And so one practical takeaway question for you this Yom Kippur is – Do you have a will? If not, what is stopping you write one? In my case, what made it happen was having someone less emotionally invested write it for me, so I could focus on thinking through my answers to the questions.

But what about all the other wonderful and little things that are not about physical ownership or inheritance of money or stuff? What about your values, your stories, your experiences and life lessons?

A 95 year old grandmother, of a friend of mine, decided she was tired of going to funerals of friends and families. Tired of hearing all these poignant and lovely stories and eulogies, but without the main person present to enjoy them. And so she decided to celebrate her own life whilst still alive. She threw a massive ‘Funeral Party’ as she called it, where everyone invited had the opportunity to talk to her, not about her. Also it meant she could share her own life story in details that would otherwise have been lost. She shared the values that had guided her, the lessons she had learned over her lifetime, and the joy she had and was still experiencing. And so she found a way to use the inevitability of death to focus on what mattered to her, to gather and celebrate with the people she loved.

We are encouraged to write an ethical will, a legacy based around our stories and values. But, again, most people like this idea, yet cannot get themselves to actually do it, unless the situation is critical.

And so if Swedish death cleaning, or ethical wills, or living shiva parties is too much and cannot help us to do the work of Yom Kippur, then what can?

WellI think I do have one more answer to offer, an answer that is at once joyful, musical, and meaningful. And oh so British.

This method gently encourages us to think about what would happen if we were all alone on a deserted island; with only ourselves for company, how would we cope?

To get to the point where you can choose just one track, a book and a luxury item, you first have to reflect on your life up until that point, which is what every castaway on Desert Island Discs effectively has to do. As we do on Yom Kippur, or what my friend’s grandmother did at her party, we put into words that which matters to us, by thinking about our own lives.

Tying thoughts to a song or a recording can make the task easier and more joyful. Songs gives the task texture and structure that can be difficult to do if you are just writing down words alone, even as a letter.

And what is more, the castaways don’t do it only at the end of their lives, but often in the middle, some even do it several times.

So, if you had to choose eight recordings to help you reflect on your life, what would they be? What values would you highlight?

My list would have such classics as Roger Whittaker, Suzanne Vega, Arrested Development, Jonathan Larson (Rent), a Swedish nursery rhyme about trolls, and Ozi v’zimrat yah (Hebrew chant) on it. I still haven’t got all my songs figured out yet, but I think that’s the whole point of our annual Desert Island get together, if we can call Yom Kippur that, respectfully.

For I don’t want to undermine the seriousness of this time, or the importance of the imagery of death. The grittiness of Jewish tradition and the refusal to be superficial are some of the great strengths of our heritage.

We are told that it’s not going to be easy, that no one has promised a life of song and dance; Yom Kippur instead prepares us, helping us to be realistic. Instead of denying death we are asked to face it, instead of always running we are asked to use the time wisely.

The downside however, of the imagery is that we cannot always get ourselves to do what we have to do. That we procrastinate indefinitely. And so, as we try and take a measure of this year, of our lives, perhaps a little help from our musical friends can ease the burden. Maybe we can find a way to write those difficult lists, including the legal ones if you haven’t done it yet. And then, maybe, share it with those closest to you. For that is also the gift of Yom Kippur.

The image of death is a reminder to us to live. And however long we have, to reflect on what matters to us. We allow ourselves this time to think about the hard issues, the joyful and poignant stories, the times that we felt torn apart, and the times where we healed; and even to share them, if we can. Remember my friend’s grandmother? Well she is now 101, and still looks back at her Funeral Party with fondness.

And so, as we end this particular moment on our Island, the disc I have chosen to rescue from the waves echoes; ‘Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear, how do you measure, [measure] a year?’

1 https://www.apdo.co.uk/death-cleaning-the-six-basic-principles/

Share this Thought for the High Holy Days