You know the Romans were known for many great achievements, but they weren’t so swift when it came to marking the passage of time. They invented the Julian calendar which was advanced for its time, but didn’t take into account the exact length of a year. So after a few years it became obvious that the calendar wasn’t keeping pace with the actual changing of the seasons.
Believe it or not, it wasn’t until nearly 800 years later that Pope Gregory the 13th designed a new calendar that better matched the true length of a year. The only problem was that this new Gregorian calendar dropped ten days off the Julian calendar.
So many countries simply refused to follow it, even though they knew it was more accurate. In fact, England and her colonies didn’t agree to use the new calendar until 1752, and even then many people protested the loss of time. The rallying cry of the opposition to the new calendar was, “Give us back our days.”
“Give us back our days.” If someone only could. Give us back our days. When actor Michael Landon realized that at his relatively young age he had reached the end of his life, he said, “Someone should tell us right at the start of our lives that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit every day. Do it I say, whatever you want to do – do it now, there are only so many tomorrows.”
And that has been the wisdom of Jewish civilization from our most ancient days. For at least the last 3,000 years we have had this day – Yom Kippur so we will remember every day, that we may not live to see the next tomorrow. In ancient days Rabban Gamliel decreed that all Jews be buried in a plain, white shroud to teach us that no matter how much we might accumulate during our brief time on earth, we leave it all behind when the angel of death comes to call.
So it became the custom throughout the centuries for Jews to wear a white Kittel, a form of a white shroud on Yom Kippur to remind us of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. To accomplish exactly what Michael Landon demanded – to force us year in and year out to confront the painful reality of our own mortality.
Well, here we are on Yom Kippur. And here I stand dressed in a white robe, a symbol of that very shroud of death that Rabban Gamliel mandated so many centuries ago. For Jewish tradition has always recognized the stark reality of life – once they are gone, no power on earth can ever give us back our days.
Last year on Kol Nidre, I stood on this bimah and I remember saying to you, “Last night I saw God.” And shared with you the miracle of our friend and fellow congregant, David Levinson. I relayed the story of how Didi and I were privileged to be at the hospital erev Kol Nidre to hear that blessed sound of the helicopter land on the roof as it brought David the gift of life – a new lung.
David received a lung transplant that evening, and all of us – his family, friends, congregation, community breathed a deep sigh of relief with him, ached with him as he suffered through the trauma and fears and finally success of that astounding operation.
The great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides once wrote that miracles come not to demonstrate what is impossible, but to reveal what is possible. And David surely received a modern day medical miracle of Biblical proportions. In the Book of Genesis it is written that God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and blew into his nostrils the breath of life and Adam became a living being. That night David received the same divine gift of the breath of life.
And then week after week and month after month, David lived his life to the fullest with his friends, his KI Havurah, and his beloved wife and soul mate Judith – every single day. He even helped design and organize the new wall of history that we will be dedicating at Kehillat Israel in honor of our 50th anniversary in November. But after eight short months even this miracle came to an end as his new lung failed him, and David Levinson died, an inspiration to the end. “Give us back our days.” Oh, if we only could.
Adlai Stevenson, an eloquent American statesman once wrote, “Live – decently, fearlessly, joyously – and don’t forget that in the long run it is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.” It’s the life in your years that counts – whether you have eight, or eighty or eight hundred more months to go.
You see, no one really has to give us back our days – we already have all the time there is – we have today. And the reason we are here is re-ignite a sense of urgency in the days we have. The past is already a dream and the future is a promise that no one can keep.
All we ever have in life is one day – today. And we can do just about anything for one day. So just for today, let us be unafraid of life, unafraid of death which is the shadow of life; unafraid to be happy; unafraid to enjoy the beautiful; unafraid to believe that we have the best within us.
Let us be like the famed artist, Auguste Renoir who suffered so from arthritis that just holding a brush in his hand was enough to make him wince. “Why do you keep painting?” a friend once asked. “The pain passes,” replied Renoir, “but the beauty endures.”
When we learn to live our lives as if it is what we create today that matters most of all; the lives we touch today that matter most of all; the smiles and tears and touch we share today that matters most of all – then indeed, the beauty that really does matter most in our lives will endure.
No one can give us back our days. How precious each moment is, and how easy it is to forget.
Mi yekhiyeh umi yamut? Who shall live and who shall die? We ask throughout these High Holy Days. But it’s not really a question of who is it? Only when. So make each day count this year. Make your choices matter every day. Make your relationships matter every day. Because this white robe and this day of awe come to remind us each year of perhaps the most important lesson of all – that once they are gone, no one can ever give us back our days.