Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Fully Entering the Days of Awe

I have just returned from recognizing Rosh Hashanah with community in which I grew up. There was single vision that kept reappearing as the days of awe envelop us. The vision that pops into my head, and may always, is of the last hour of Yom Kippur 5765. That YK as we davened neilah and reiterated that our fate was in the hands of the one and that the gates were closing, I was sitting with Stefan Presser Z"L.

Stefan was a very holy man and I was lucky to learn from him formally when i worked for him at the Pennsylvania ACLU. Stefan had an uncompromising view of morality. His life was devoted to fighting for the underdogs, holding those in power accountable, and insisting that because they could do the right things that they would do the right thing. Working for Stefan was (practically) a right of passage for those growing up progressive in our Philadelphia community. So many people were inspired by his vision for a better world and his unflinching willingness to express clearly what problems faced us.

Stefan fought so hard because he believed so deeply that people would, when presented with compelling arguments, change their ways. He believed in people. As neilah echoed beautifully, it was clear that Stefan's cancer had spread to the point that this would probably be his last YK. The image of the gates closing was especially poignant for him because his gates were closing. We asked to be inscribed in the book of life, mostly as a formality, he did so with the earnest understanding that it was a longshot. His fate had been sealed, and we would find out soon that his fight was over in this world. He died a few days before the next yom kippur on October 6, 2005. That was the week leading to Shabbat shuvah, and this week is his first yartzeit.

Stefan helped me see the most important theme of the days of awe, that no matter how vigorously we fight for justice, we will die, often in our old age, but often in the prime of life. We can eat healthy, avoid jaywalking, but fundamentally our own mortality is guaranteed and it is beyond our control. What we can do is acknowledge this, and knowing that each extra day we live is a lucky break, ask if we are living the way we would most like. Do we live each day as we would like to live our last? When it is time for me to fight for my life, as Stefan did (though hopefully after many more years of life), will i be able to take solace in the life i led? In the work I did? In the ways i reached out to people? In the tangible ways i raised sparks up in this world?

I am very far from were i would like to be and Yom Kippur is a call to accept and reflect. The awe comes from the realization that we are not in control and must submit to the cosmos, to god, to the earth, to whatever we want to call it, but we must submit or be woefully in denial.

I will probably always think of Stefan as we enter the yamim noraim (days of awe) and it is the YK i spent with Stefan, as his gates were closing, that opened up my gates to the certainty of mortality and the challenge to embrace it as an impetus for periodic reflection. In this way, as in many others, his memory is a blessing. Every time one of the people was inspired working with him in the little ACLU office, zealously defends the Bill of Rights, Stefan's memory is a blessing. Every time one his students refuses to accept the easy embrace of apathy, Stefan's memory is a blessing. We were lucky to learn from him, and we will be lucky if we are able to do as much for advancing justice in this world in our entire lives as he was in his 25 working years.


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