How Yom Kippur is Like Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

George Gazarek gave this d’var on Yom Kippur.

This was in the Reform Judaism Weekly Update last week.  I thought it was good enough to share with you this morning.

“Whether you prefer the 1843 book or any of the many movie versions made since, there is no question that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic. Now, despite the season for which Dickens wrote it, A Christmas Carol is a Yom Kippur story if there ever was one.

“As a small child, I lived to hear Ebenezer Scrooge say ‘Bah! Humbug!’  Only when I was a bit older did I start to appreciate the drama that unfolds after the first commercial.

“Scrooge spends a restless night marked by four fateful encounters. The first is with the ghost of his dead business partner Jacob Marley.  In life, Marley was Scrooge’s tight-fisted clone.  In death, he walks about chained to his account books, wailing in misery.

“The frightened Scrooge cries out to Marley: ‘But you were always a good man of business, Jacob!’

“ ‘Business!’ answers Marley.  ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, benevolence, forbearance.  These were all my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’

“The Hassidic rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who died in 1810, two years before Charles Dickens was born, expressed Marley’s admonition to Scrooge in another way.  Once, he saw a man hurrying down the street looking neither to the right or the left.

“ ‘Why are you hurrying so?’ the rabbi inquired. ‘I am pursuing my livelihood,’ the man answered.  ‘And how do you know,’ the rabbi continued, ‘that your livelihood is in front of you?  Perhaps it is behind you, and you are running away from it.’

“Such was Marley’s message to Scrooge:  You are running away from your livelihood, but ‘I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.’  As Marley leaves, he promises Scrooge that the spirits of his past, present, and future will visit him.  The ghost of his past allows Scrooge to see the hurt people inflicted on him that turned his life in its miserable direction. He sees himself as a boy in school, sitting alone during the winter recess, in his words, ‘a solitary child … neglected by his friends.’

“Then Scrooge sees himself as a young apprentice to kindly Mr. Fezziwig and remembers, ‘He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.’  In his dream of the present, Scrooge learns from his nephew Fred and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, that vast riches do not provide happiness, nor does their absence preclude it.  In Bob’s ailing son, Tiny Tim, Scrooge sees opportunities to act righteously that he has spurned for so long.

“Scrooge’s final lesson allows him to look into the future, to see how people scorn him after he is gone.  Yom Kippur asks us to experience a night like Scrooge’s Christmas Eve.  We need to hear and heed the lesson: Humanity is my business…charity, forbearance, mercy, and benevolence.  These are all my business.  We need to remember those who treat us kindly.  We also need to ponder:  Will our death cause sadness or occasion relief?

“ ‘Spirit,’ cried Scrooge, clutching the robe of Christmas Future, ‘why show me this if I am past all hope?’  Scrooge, of course, was not past all hope.  And neither are we.

“In one of his famous stories, the 18th-century Polish preacher Jacob Krantz, known as the Dubner Maggid, told of a king who owned a precious diamond.  One morning to his horror, the king noted a scratch on one of the facets of the gem.  The overwrought monarch sent word around the world offering a great reward to any jeweler who could remove the scratch from the gem, but none of them succeeded.

“At last, a local lapidary asked to try.  The king’s courtiers scoffed: ‘What can you do that the world’s greatest jewelers could not?’  ‘Certainly,’ he replied, ‘I cannot do any worse than they.’  Skillfully, the jeweler used the scratch as a stem around which he etched a beautiful flower. When he finished, the king and all his courtiers agreed that the gem was more beautiful than it had been before.

“Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we are flawed diamonds – with the opportunity to etch lives of beauty and meaning around our shortcomings.  Every year, the Yom Kippur Carol urges us to build lives of ‘charity, mercy, benevolence, and forbearance’ around our flaws.

“It is not an easy thing to do, but if our efforts are sincere, infinite rewards await us at the end of the day.”

That essay was written by Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves is Biblical Narratives.  He is a former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, Connecticut.

In the Torah portion for today, God tells the Israelite people, “You stand this day, all of you, before the LORD your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, to enter into the covenant of the LORD your God; I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day.

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.  For I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land which you are about to enter and possess.  I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life – if you and your offspring would live.”

Just what does it mean to “choose life”?  I can envision five different dimensions in how one would choose life.

The first is to fight with all our strength, for every breath and every moment of life that we can.  I like to cook with mint, but sometimes it’s hard to find in the stores.  A friend told me I should grow my own.  I tore off a leaf from a batch I had in the refrigerator and stuck it in some water. It grew a few roots but not enough to plant.  It started looking bad enough; my son wanted to throw it out.  I put it in a cup with some soil and stuck it outside on the deck next to some milkweed I was growing.

In a few days, not only did it start growing in its own cup, it was growing over into the milkweed cup next to it.  So I stuck it in the ground in a patch away from other plants and grass and it grew into a nice little plant about eight inches tall.  I went out to check on it the day after my landscaper had cut the grass.  The plant was completely gone as the weed-whacker had cut it off even with the ground.  I was devastated.  Much to my surprise, in about a week, that little plant not only came back from its original root but it had pushed itself up through the soil in three other spots.  No one had to tell that mint to choose life, it was fighting tenaciously, against all odds, not just to live but to grow in every way it could.  That’s choosing life.

A second way we can choose life is one day at a time, or, as my cousin used to say, some people commit suicide one day at a time.  He was talking about the decisions we make each day that affect our health.  Decisions regarding nutrition, exercise, sleep, drugs, stress, safety.  They seem like such small things at the time but over many years those decisions add up to life-or-death choices.  Today is a great day to reflect on the daily choices we make and to ask ourselves if we are making the decisions to choose life.

A third way we can choose life is by living life with all the gusto we can muster.  Two years ago, I flew into southwestern France to a medieval town called Saint Jean.  The next morning, I hiked across the Pyrenees into Spain.  I kept hiking across northern Spain for five and a half weeks for a total of five hundred miles.  A few weeks ago, Jackie Schoch celebrated her 70th birthday by completing a 70-mile bike ride.  Last year, Jasha Levenson went camping in northern Minnesota when it was 20 degrees below zero.

Depending on your age and physical condition, your gusto could be visiting a garden or a museum, or cooking a wonderful meal.  Each day we are given is a gift.  Living each day with gusto shows our appreciation for that gift.

A fourth way we can choose life is by living a life of service to others.  Some of the richest moments in my life have come when I was doing something to help someone less fortunate.  Doctors have shown that one of the best ways of combating depression and anxiety is through helping others.  Of course, one of the easiest ways to help others is by volunteering to lead a Shabbat service or to host an oneg.

The fifth and final way we can choose life is found in the last verses of today’s reading. “Choose life, by loving the LORD your God, listening to God’s voice, and holding fast to the One who is your life and the length of your days.”  Decide this Yom Kippur to let God into your life. Your life will be so much richer because of it.

May 5777 bring you and your families all the love and happiness that the world has to give.

Shana Tova.