Life is a pre-existing condition.
Back in High School, I read Homer's great work of Greek mythology, The Illiad. I devoured the epic poem of Odysseus and his adventures with the pantheon of Greek gods. The stories are rich and complex, full of drama and magic, and ripe for metaphor. Even though the mythological tales are not necessarily true, they do point out great truths about human existence.
Ajax was a great Greek warrior. Nicknamed The Unconquered, Ajax fought battle after battle and never once sustained an injury. There was no equal among humans that could match his strength. Of all the Greek heroes in The Illiad, he did not needed intercession from the deities perched on Mount Olympus.
At the end of The Illiad, Ajax and Odysseus argue over the spoils of their commanding officer, Achilles. Each man thinks himself deserving of the prize. There is a competition to determine who will possess the armor. Odysseus dazzles the audience with his eloquence and wit, and claims the prize. Ajax is furious and depressed. He can't move beyond the injustice of his experience. His heroic tale comes to a close.
The tragedy of this Greek hero reminds us that even when we are successful, even when we may appear victorious ... life is still extraordinarily painful. There is bound to be uncertainty, discomfort, disappointment, anger. Ajax did not know how to deal with these emotions.
We are not Greek heroes. We are flawed people that seek comfort and redemption. For some of our experiences, we want a respite from our pains and fears. And for some, we seek forgiveness for possibly causing these feelings in others.
Ajax had just one disappointment - one tragedy. We have many. In the last year we have dealt with more than our fair share of political crisis, economic instability and world conflict. And then there are the pains of our personal lives. The strains of relationships. The burdens of age. The fragility of health. And so I say, life is a pre-existing condition.
But to explain this concept, I need to talk about something that we all love.
I figured that if I were to talk about food tomorrow morning, you wouldn't be too happy. But I'm sure we can handle it tonight.
Often when we fast on Yom Kippur, we want it to end quickly. As tomorrow wears on, many of you will want the readings to go faster, and the sermon shorter. Fasting is not fun. On Yom Kippur, some of us headaches from not drinking our daily coffee. Some of us get irritable. Fasting is not a pleasant experience. And so, we support each other by often saying, Have an easy fast.
I don't think this is what we should be saying. The entire point of fasting is so that we indeed do feel pain, as we think intensely about our mistakes and mis-deeds. If fasting was easy, there would be no need to do it. I propose that we instead say, Have a meaningful fast. Fasting is difficult, it's uncomfortable ... it may even be annoying ... but it should be meaningful.
And as your bellies start to rumble during the morning service tomorrow, please remember that you. are. a. survivor. We hear the words of Who shall live and who shall die and we think about the safety of our children, the health of our spouse, the financial security of our friends. On this Yom Kippur, each of us is here tonight with a pre-existing condition that is painful and perilous. That pre-existing condition is life. And on Yom Kippur, each of us is vulnerable. Each of is is injured.
Ajax lived his entire life uninjured. Notice the irony: Ajax did not win the coveted armor. And when the unjust realities of life finally did strike Aja, he had no armor to protect himself from them.
Yom Kippur reminds us that a life well lived is not a life without pain. A meaningful life contains sadness, just as our Passover seder plate contains the bitterness of the maror.
A Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur is Nitzavim. In it, All of the Israelites are assembled together:
You stand [Nitzavim] 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, from woodchopper to waterdrawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, 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.
Unlike Ajax, we do have armor. It's our Torah.
Later in Nitzavim Moses concludes his speech:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — that you and your offspring would live — For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that God swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them.
God promises us long life. But as the Psalms painfully remind us, it rains on saint and sinner alike. A life of Judaism and Torah is not magical like Achilles' armor. It does not protect us from injury or sickness. There are no guarantees of living a long, healthy life. But, if we do choose life, our legacy is what will long endure upon the soil that God swore to our ancestors.
The choice is not meant to be a literal one between life on the one hand and death on the other. The choice is between doing what's easy on the one hand and what's necessary on the other. The choice is between apathy and action, between the status quo and the courage to take a step toward change. Sometimes, the choice is between momentary happiness and lasting holiness. But there is a choice. And it is ours.
Back in Exodus, Moses smashes the Ten Commandments after watching his people worship a golden idol. He was angry, depressed. Like Ajax, we can imagine Moses calling it quits. But instead, Moses marches back up the mountain, and forges two new tablets. Moses chose life.
Each of us has a pre-existing condition: Life. It is tenuous, perilous and painful. It can also be joyous, meaningful and holy. Choose life. We owe it to God, and we owe it to ourselves.
Have a meaningful fast.