The purpose of such a gathering seems abundantly clear. We speak easily about the latest sporting events, the music, politics, what's happening in our kids' lives, how's the weather, how long was this evening's commute, but what about death? How do we speak about the fact that our lives are truly finite and that we have limited time to infuse our lives with meaning and even more importantly, to leave a positive impact upon our world?
Psychologist Sherry Turkle has noticed that as our use of technology increases, our level of personal, intimate conversation, about what truly important topics, has diminished. Turkle writes, "We are offered robots and a whole world of machine-mediated relationships on networked devices. As we instant-message, e-mail, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude...Teenagers avoid making telephone calls, fearful that they 'reveal too much.' They would rather text than talk. Adults, too, choose keyboards over the human voice." This is not to say that one can't speak about death over a device, or that one can't describe a subject of great depth by typing a message, only that some conversations lend themselves to an opportunity for human interaction, since each of us lives a similarly human reality.
This human reality is driven home at this time of the year. Our High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, in the words of my senior rabbi from Australia, Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins "an intricate dance with death." Consider the imagery of these holidays provided by the ancient rabbis of God sealing our fate in either a Book of Life or a Book of Death. Consider that the sound of the shofar is meant to rouse our souls out of their spiritual slumber. Consider on Yom Kippur how we deny ourselves of our most basic human needs - food, drink, hygiene, sex. But for what purpose? To bring us face to face with our own mortality, our own humanness, our own fragility, and our own finite reality. And given that stark and confronting reality, to afford us an opportunity to regroup, re-center, and return to the world, ready to rebuild.
In this regard, holding a Death Cafe on the night of Selichot is nothing short of a stroke of brilliance. Because on the High Holy Days we rarely speak about death, even though we have to. We read the powerful "Unetaneh Tokef" which expresses that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, and then addresses, who shall die in the most painful and awful of ways. But we rarely speak about how this piece of liturgy challenges us, confronts us awakens us, and might even inspire us, to recognize that our time here is limited.
Bad things happen. They happen to us and they happen to our families, and they happen all over the news and all over the world, and day after day it just eats at us, how precious this tenuous thing we call life actually is. And I dare say it isn't God or perhaps our indifference to religion that brings these tragedies about, but the very chaotic, haphazard, and unpredictable nature of the world in which we live.
These High Holy Days, beginning with our observance tomorrow night of Selichot, are their very own reality check, and our own Death Cafe, to help remind us that our lives, our affairs, our relationships, should always be whole and be in order. The word selichot refers to prayers of forgiveness recited before and during the period of the ten days of repentance. Recognizing our flaws, our failings, we appeal to whatever Force there may be in the universe that can help strengthen us to live a life of meaning and purpose, of heartfelt deeds and concerned actions, for a prayer that's just recited without leading us to greater responsibility, is not a prayer at all.
Something has to change in our lives and in our world. We don't just say these words to feel better about ourselves. We have to accept the challenge as it is presented to us. Don't leave anything unsaid, don't forget to hug your children and tell them what they mean to you, don't go to bed angry, don't leave the house without saying "I love you," don't leave a broken relationship unresolved, and if you have a dream, a goal that you want to achieve, go out and pursue it, go make the most of your life. Are we good with every aspect of ourselves? Are we good with every relationship of which we are a part? Are we good with a broken, fragmented, tormented, corrupt, terrorized world? Are we good with God?
It is easy at this time of year to get lost in the humdrum of services that goes on for three hours. It is so easy to take the jaded perspective that all we are doing is some blind, unnecessary ritual that is just simply "tradition" that we just have to trudge through. It is very easy to lose a sense of the deep meaning of our tradition, to read some of the verbiage in our prayer book and say, "I don't believe in any of this." It is easy to just walk away.
But accepting the challenge is even harder. Dancing with the meaning of the words of our prayers, being challenged by our texts and the concepts that they contain and present, asking deep questions of ourselves and others and God, and inviting those questions - questions about the true meaning of our lives - is much, much harder. But it's necessary. It's real. It's life.
And tomorrow night, we begin that journey, as a community again. We may not be holding a Death Cafe per se, but the concept is eerily similar, and the goal, is to help us make the most of our finite lives. Now that's a conversation for the oneg, and for our meals on Rosh Hashanah.
 Text Message received from Naomi Kerstein, September 7, 2016.
 Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Kindle Locations 468-472.
 Yom Kippur Sermon 2006.