Monday, September 16, 2013

Yom Kippur Eve Sermon: The Atonement of Kirk Bains

God speaks to us in mysterious ways. At Sinai, the Torah says, God spoke to all of Israel through thunder and lightning and the sound of the shofar. Before that, he spoke to Moses through a Burning Bush. And later, he spoke to Elijah as a "still, small voice." To Kirk Bains, he spoke through a newspaper left unread in its wrapper.

    I learned about God's appearance to Kirk Bains in Dr. Jerome Groopman's book The Measure of Our Days. Dr. Groopman teaches at Harvard Medical School, practices at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and is one of the world's leading experts on both cancer and AIDS. He writes out of his background as both a physician and a learned, committed Jew.

    Kirk Bains was not Jewish. He was a New England WASP from a privileged background. He had attended the finest prep schools. His ancestors had owned shipyards, but the family business had been sold off well before the collapse of the shipbuilding industry. Kirk Bains had taken his share of the family wealth and used it to make millions as a venture capitalist and commodities trader. He had no interest in the product his companies would make, and no interest in the long term. "In your world," he said to Dr. Groopman,  "it's the product that matters -- new knowledge that can lead to curing a disease. For me, the product means nothing. It can be oil or platinum or software or widgets. It's all a shell game played for big money, and once I win enough, I wave good-bye."

    He showed up one day at Dr. Groopman's office as an act of desperation. He had been operated on at Yale - New Haven Hospital but his cancer had metastasized to a number of different locations. No cancer program anywhere would treat him further because he appeared to have no chance of recovery. Dr. Groopman read in his chart from another hospital "palliative care advised" -- meaning make the patient as comfortable as possible while he waits for the inevitable, but make no further attempt at actually treating his illness. Dr. Groopman explained an experimental treatment he was working on. He gave his honest opinion that there was only a small chance of success and that the treatment itself might kill Kirk. If not, the side effects might make life intolerable. But Kirk pleaded, and Dr. Groopman remembered Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. What chance could justify attempting the treatment? 1 in 50? 1 in 100? 1 in 1000?

    "Jerry, I know what a lousy investment I am . . . I have no inventory left and this cancer is taking my market share, meaning my life. The worst side effects can't be worse to me than being dead."
    Dr. Groopman agreed to try the treatment, and the night before the procedure visited Kirk in his hospital room. He found him terrified. “I don’t know why, Jerry. I’m rarely afraid. Maybe because I know this is my last chance, and I’ll probably die, and after that, nothingness.”

    “So then it would be like it was before we were born,” said the doctor. “Would that be so terrible? That’s what my father would say to comfort me as a child when I asked him about death.”

    “See if you still find that enough comfort when it is you in this bed. Nothingness. No time. No place. No form. I don’t ask for heaven. I’d take hell. Just to be.”

    Miraculously, the treatment worked and Kirk’s cancer went into remission. The side effects were pretty severe but they were tolerable, and within a few weeks Kirk was able to play nine holes of golf and travel to Florida on vacation. Though Kirk’s health was slowly returning, Dr. Groopman noticed that his mental state was different. His fighting spirit was gone. He mentioned in one visit that he had stopped reading newspapers, of which he used to devour three every morning before breakfast. “It’s just that the information in the papers doesn’t seem that important anymore.”

    After about four months, Kirk experienced some back pains but he didn’t go see Dr. Groopman for another three weeks. The doctor was alarmed, because in that time the cancer had wrapped around the spinal cord and was potentially going to cause paralysis. But Kirk responded with apathy. “Legs working, legs not working, what’s the difference if you’re dead.”

    Kirk Bains did die soon thereafter, but before he did he explained to Dr. Groopman the reason for his loss of his desire to live.

    “When I went into remission, I couldn’t read the papers because my deals and trades seemed pointless . . .  (my whole life) I had no interest in the long term. I had no interest in creating something, not a product in business or a partnership with a person. And now I have no equity. No dividends coming in. Nothing to show in my portfolio. How do you like my great epiphany? No voice of God or holy star, but a newspaper left unread in its wrapper.”

    As some of us discussed last week in a study session, many of us understand much of the liturgy of the Yamim Norai'im to be challenging in light of our own experiences. I hasten to add that I use the Hebrew term Yamim Norai'im on purpose, as the English "High Holy Days" does not convey the meaning of the Hebrew which is usually translated as Days of Awe but can just as accurately be translated as "Days of Terror." And for those who literally believe that during these days God is deciding the fate of every person, who shall live and who shall die, who shall prosper and who shall not, they can indeed be Days of Terror.

    But even for those of us with a different theology, it is interesting to note that the image of the Book of Life is in fact a mixed metaphor. Because we also read in the liturgy that on these days God merely opens the book to see what is already inscribed in it, because every one of us has already inscribed it with our own deeds.

    Out of destruction can grow renewal. The Judaism we practice today, the Judaism of Torah study, worship, and good deeds, blossomed out of the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jewish independence in the year 70 CE. While it is and always has been popular to bemoan the contemporary state of Jewish life and observance, who knows what Judaism would look like today if the Temple had not been destroyed? Would a religion which continued to center around one building in Jerusalem, a religion whose main observance was animal sacrifice, have produced, for example, 20 percent of all Nobel prize winners even though it was less than one half of one percent of the world's population? It's hard to say, but there are other religions which go back as far as we do, whose religious practice is essentially unchanged from the ancient world, and I can tell you with certainty that Judaism is in better shape than Zoroastrianism or Samaritanism.

    When Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, there were some suggestions to treat this as an opportunity to re-think what a city should be in this day and age. Not to simply rebuild what was, where it was, maybe with levees that were a little bit better; but to radically re-think the very essence of a city. Because it was primarily the slums, the poorer quarters, the areas of little opportunity which had been destroyed. Why simply rebuild slums and let their former inhabitants go back to their lives of despair? Build a city without slums, a city where even the poorest have hope and meaning. I have no qualifications in city planning, so I don't know if this would have been feasible, or what the inhabitants of the destroyed areas would have done for housing and jobs while the American city was being re-thought. But it was an intriguing concept and, unfortunately, I think a missed opportunity.

    For some, severe illness can also be an opportunity to re-think their lives. Illness forces us to slow down, to evaluate what really matters and what is less important. For Kirk Bains, it was just such an opportunity. He came to realize that the life he had been living up to that point was hollow. He had mistaken pleasure for happiness. Wealth can certainly buy us pleasure but nothing, nothing in the world, can buy us happiness.

    Kirk Bains almost certainly never read Moses Maimonides "Laws of Repentance," which some of us studied last year in my study session on Rosh Hashanah. If he had, he would have understood that he had completed only the first step of teshuva. He realized that he had done wrong. He had sought wealth and power but he had not, in any way, sought to make anything lasting. As a result of the way he lived his life, he had not built the relationships he should have with his wife and his children. He was facing death feeling that his whole life was one huge waste. He was as low as a person can be. As he said to Dr. Groopman: "the remission meant nothing because it was too late to relive my life. I once asked for hell. Maybe God made this miracle to have me know what it will feel like."

    The second step of teshuva, Maimonides teaches us, is to confess our wrongs. If we have sinned against God -- violating the Sabbath, eating forbidden foods -- we must confess our wrongs to God. If we have sinned against another person, we have to confess our sins and ask forgiveness from that person. And this is what Dr. Groopman urged Kirk to do. "Have you thought about telling Cathy and the children what you've told me?"
    Kirk recoiled in shock.
    "Why? So they can hear what they already know? That I was a self-absorbed uncaring jerk? That's really going to be a comforting deathbed interchange."

    "Kirk, you can't relive your life. There isn't enough time. But Cathy and the children can learn from you. And when you're gone, the memory of your words may help to guide them."

    The third step of teshuva, what Maimonides calls "perfect repentance," is to avoid committing the same sin if presented with the opportunity to do so. And not because of fear of getting caught, not because of inability, but because you now know that it is wrong. However, Maimonides goes on to say that even if one repents in old age, even if one repents literally on their deathbed, their sins are forgiven.

    But what, exactly, does it mean to say that sins are forgiven? During the Musaf service tomorrow morning, we will read the "Avodah"  -- the details of the Yom Kippur sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. We will read about this sacrifice in the Torah Portion tomorrow morning, as well. What is the whole point of this ritual, which involves the High Priest loading the sins of the people onto a goat and sending it out into the wilderness -- the so-called "scapegoat ritual?"

    The High Holiday Machzor which we use shortens the traditional Avodah reading considerably. Being a Conservative prayerbook, it faces a dilemma when it comes to liturgical invocations of animal sacrifice. On the one hand, we are to some extent traditionalists. Besides, the whole structure of our liturgy is based on the sacrificial order, and you can't just skip it altogether without totally gutting our Yom Kippur prayers. On the other hand, we are, frankly, a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. It seems so primitive and magical.

    But Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary offers a perspective on the role ritual plays in our lives, and especially the rituals of Yom Kippur, which really opened up for me the meaning of what we do.

Chancellor Eisen, I think, understands the reluctance most of us have to see the ritual as "really" having an effect and magically erasing all our sins.But he writes in “Taking Hold of Torah”,  “ritual, we might say, touches life but it is not life; it marks out bounds within which life can be lived well. It is a sort of art."

    But we should not dismiss that art as "mere" art. He writes: "we need that art because, no matter how complicated its details, it has one supreme advantage over life: we can get it right.  I know that I will never live up to ethical ideals, even my own . . . I will always ‘sin,’ which in Hebrew means missing the mark, falling short. I will not always be the spouse I should be to my wife, the father I want to be to my children. But I can get the Bach invention right, if I practice it long enough. I can leave a Yom Kippur Neilah service, after twenty-five hours of following the prescribed ritual, with the precious sense of having at least done that much right. The ritual gives us a taste of rightness that is meant to inspire us to try to attain it outside the bounds of art as well."

    Prof. Eisen teaches us that ritual, even though it is "merely" ritual, really works. Not in a magical sense, but because God knows that we can never live our lives entirely correctly. We can't get everything right, but God has provided us with some things that we can get right. And having gotten at least something right, we are inspired to do more.

    And that is what Yom Kippur does for us. Again Prof. Eisen: "complete atonement in the real world, the ethical world, is impossible. The atonement must take symbolic form, so that we can see it happening, see ourselves attaining forgiveness in an unequivocal way that real life never allows, and erase wrongs that in the ethical sphere can never be entirely set right. This is the precious gift of ritual. What is done in its realm can be undone. Acts can take place -- and then be erased, covered over; the force of the Hebrew root for atonement."

    Yom Kippur, then is the day when our sins are covered over. We get to start anew; but in order to be able to start anew, we need to know that those we have wronged -- whether God or another person -- have forgiven us. That is what the Avodah did in the ancient Temple, and that is what through reading about it, it continues to do for us.

    In the chapter he wrote about Kirk Bains, Dr. Groopman never tells us whether Kirk followed his doctor's advice to "confess," as it were, to his wife and children. I hope that he did. I hope that he faced his death at peace, able to believe that he had, even then, been given a chance to start over. As Dr. Groopman said, perhaps the memory of Kirk's words, the memory of his own powerful repentance, his realization of what was really important in life, would help to guide them even after his death.

    That is at least one way we achieve immortality. Our words, our actions, our examples inspire even when we are no longer here. Through the writings of Jerome Groopman, Kirk Bains has taught us all, and achieved his own measure of immortality as well.

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