Friday, 10 October 2008

A yizkor sermon - Mortality Therapy

Yizkor: Mortality Therapy


My first experience of death came when my grandfather Monte, alav hashalom passed away. He was in his late eighties. He coughed and hacked his way past my bar mitzvah - no-one had ever told him smoking could kill - and died when I was fifteen.

He would have loved to have seen me as Rabbi of this community.

This year Josephine and I have had the enormous honour of naming our son after my grandfather.

I give this sermon in his memory.


Yizkor is the most terrifying of services to speak at, for me, at least.

Because I really don’t know.

Because when I confront this awesome and impossible challenge of knowing how to speak about those we have loved and lost I struggle.

We are all, quite rightly, pulled short.

We are all, quite rightly scared of death.


The tradition mandates that when a loved one dies we tear our garment.

We are ripped.

The tradition mandates that when a loved one dies we cover the mirrors, we stop washing, perfuming, coiffuring  and preening.

None of it can ever replace the life lost.

So we sit and we receive comfort.


The experience of death of another is a sad business.

It makes us shrink

It makes us smaller.

For very good reasons we normally think of death as an anti-life force

As a loss.


But I wonder if there is not something quite different that happens when we contemplate our own mortality.

I wonder if becoming more aware of our own mortality might even make us stronger, more vital, more alive.

Many of us loathe the idea of turning our attention to our own mortality.

We would rather ignore any suggestion of our ageing, our own loss of vitality.

Hide from it,

Pretend it isn’t happening.


But there is another power in death that is not at so emptying, so draining.


It may well be that a life lived with an awareness of death is a greater, a bolder and a brighter life than a life lived hidden from the reality that we will all, at a point hopefully many miles away, pass on from this world.


In our Torah reading we are right up to the end of the Bible.

We are soon to read how Moses, standing on the banks of the Jordan, gave one last speech to the people he led out of Egypt.

He knows he is soon to die, but this knowledge, if anything, lifts up his oratory. The speech is surely the most poetic and powerful in Moses’ extraordinary life. It opens with this cry;


Listen up oh Heavens, let me speak, let the earth hear the words I utter.


The Rabbis want to know why he calls on heaven and earth in this way.


Behold, the Rabbis have Moses say to the heavens and the earth, The Holy Blessed One has decreed that I shall die, so know with what honour you should receive me. Know this O Heavens.[1]


What panache,

On the edge of death,

Aware of his imminent mortality Moses is lifted to ever higher levels of greatness.

With the consciousness of his mortality weighing on his mind, Moses is not cowed, not browbeaten or defeated. He comes out brighter and more focussed than ever.



I want to share an extraordinary tale I found written by the psychotherapist, Lauren Slater. It was published in the journal Guilt & Pleasure.


The patient was depressed. He was a wet rag. He was suicidal. The psychiatrist had tried every pill and combination of pills he could conceive of, you name it. And still the man was depressed. He underwent a series of six shock treatments, lying bound on a bed while they juiced his brain, waking up in a fog, his eyes burning. And still the man was depressed. He tried to hang himself, to slash his wrists, to overdose on pills; he even tried to shoot himself but missed and survived without so much as a scar. And now the psychiatrist had grown bored with him. Three times a week, the man came in and either said nothing or talked about his failures. The clock ticked away. The man began to complain of headaches. He felt physically ill. The psychiatrist suspected it was psychosomatic. He paid little attention to the man. Still, his complaints grew louder. At last the psychiatrist referred the man to a neurologist, who could see inside his skull using instruments. Three days later, the neurologist called the psychiatrist. “There is nothing wrong with him,” the neurologist said. And the psychiatrist sighed, almost disappointed.

When the man came in for his next appointment, he asked, “Did you speak to the neurologist?” The psychiatrist nodded gravely and said, “Yes, I did.”

The man leaned forward in his seat. His dull eyes flickered — with terror, but listen, light is light. “And?” he said. “Well,” said the psychiatrist, drawing it out, with no plan or premeditation. “I’m sorry, but the neurologist says you have only three months to live.” The man shot back in his seat, stared for a long time at the ceiling, and then left abruptly.


The man was now in a rush. He booked a flight to Greece, and travelled to Crete, and saw dazzling white sand and women. He ate from a big buffet in the Caribbean. He sent his psychiatrist postcards from countries all around the world. Here I am in Russia, he wrote. I was in a bar all night, he wrote. I am taking cooking classes in Taiwan. I swam in the Dead Sea. Eventually, though, the months passed and the man did not die. Nor did he seem to be dying.

When? He thought.[2]


The story continues.

The man, of course, doesn’t die. He keeps burning brightly. Eventually he goes back to the psychiatrist who tell him his disease is in remission. And a year later he goes back again, only to find the office door open and the psychiatrist away. He takes the opportunity to open the filing cabinet and read his own file.


He flipped to the end of his chart and read: Tried to inject some existential urgency into the Man’s condition. Ethically questionable.

Will seek supervision. Death as tonic? Spoke to neurologist who confirmed my thoughts — nothing wrong. Pure psychosomatic disorder.

Radical intervention. Told patient he was dying. Three months to live. Patient’s affect changed considerably. And the next note said: Postcard from patient. Depression in complete remission. Will continue with intervention. Benefits outweigh risks.


The man slowly closed his folder. On the doctor’s desk, he saw the American Journal of Psychiatry. Next to an advertisement for Effexor was an article written by his doctor. He looked at its title: “Mortality Therapy: A Case Study.”

Patient M suffered from severe treatment-refractory depression for over a decade and was unresponsive to all treatment, pharmacological and otherwise. Patient M’s depression went into complete remission when he was told he was dying. The purpose of this paper is to examine the ethics, risks, and benefits of using Mortality Therapy (MT), which may have the potential to ameliorate if not alleviate treatment-refractory depression.


Mortality therapy.

What would you do if you thought you were going to die tomorrow?

What would you do if you thought you were going to die in a year from now?

What is stopping you from doing it now?


This, my friends, this service, this day, is the closest the Jew gets to Mortality Therapy.

Mi yechiye umi yamut

Who shall live and who shall die.

And what will you do with the time, that unknowable, indefinable time that awaits each of us.


The aim is not hedonism.

Not to be running free of responsibility and care,

But to live well,

To tell those we care for, that we love them.

That we are sorry for ever hurting them.


The aim is to live well, like Moses who greeted his last days, as the Bible tells us, with undimmed eyes and a passion unabated.

The aim is to be worthy of the gift of existence, an aim reached by living so passionately and with such commitment to decency, kindness and justice, that, when our time does eventually come, we can stand before heaven and earth proud of the work of our hands.

Listen up oh Heavens, let me speak, let the earth hear the words I utter.


The savage irony of existence is that when we think we have forever we waste the gift of the time that we have.

It is only when we know, or believe, or can touch the place inside ourselves that is genuinely mortal,

It is only then that we become capable of living our lives to fullest.


To hide from our mortality is to miss the point of life.

To live with a sharpened sense of mortality allows the possibility of living a life that is truly alive.


In just a few minutes w will stand here, remembering those we have loved and lost. Remembering their mortality, their passing, their lack in our lives.

This year may we use this brush with mortality to inspire ourselves to make more of our own lives, to live with more passion, more commitment and a clearer sense of the limited period of time we will have here.


Before, before the gates will eventually close.

[1] Tanhuma Haazinu 2

[2] Radpills, Guilt & Pleasure Vol 3.

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