There’s a great old Woody Allen routine from his standup days in the 1960s. He tells a story about going down south and getting picked up by a bunch of guys in white sheets. At first he thinks they’re on their way to a costume party. When they say, “We need to go pick up the grand dragon,” it hits him: down south, white sheets, the Grand Dragon, I put two and two together. I figure there’s a guy going to the party dressed as a dragon. 

After a while they realize he’s Jewish, and they’re getting ready to hang him. And at this point Woody says, “Suddenly my whole life passed before my eyes. I saw myself as a kid again, in Kansas, going to school, swimming at the swimming hole, and fishing, frying up a mess-o-catfish, going down to the general store, getting a piece of gingham for Emmy-Lou. And I realize it’s not my life. They’re gonna hang me in two minutes, and the wrong life is passing before my eyes! And I spoke to them, and I was really eloquent, I said “Fellas, this country can’t survive, unless we love one another regardless of race, creed or colour”. And they were so moved by my words, not only did they cut me down and let me go, but that night, I sold them two thousand dollars worth of Israel Bonds. 

Now, don’t worry, friends: This is not the Israel Bonds appeal, though we will be happy to accept donations for Northwestern Hillel. My message today is not about Israel Bonds. My message is about your life passing before your eyes. Because tonight, on Yom Kippur, the story of your life should be passing before your eyes. And God forbid you’re seeing the story of the life of a kid getting a piece of gingham for Emmy-Lou, when you should be seeing your own story—the story of the life you have lived, and the life you have yet to live. 

Yom Kippur is a time to focus on my favorite question: What’s your story? What do you want to remember about your life, and what do you want to be remembered for by others? On Yom Kippur we confront our mortality, and we ask ourselves, What will be our legacy? The liturgy and the imagery of Yom Kippur prompts us to think about death so that we will think about what is most important and significant in life. 

Now this is a heavy way to spend your first weekend at college, I’ll grant you that. If you were planning on going to some big parties your first Friday night on campus, you came to the wrong place. But you know what? This is actually an incredible gift. Because if this is your first Friday night on campus—and please, raise your hand if it is. Thank you, and welcome. If this is your first Friday night on campus, this is an incredible gift. Because here you are, with hundreds of other people, reflecting on what’s most important in your life. Here you are, at the start of a new chapter—one of the most exciting, and probably the most expensive, chapters in your life story—and you have a space to reflect, a space to ponder what your story has been and what your story can be. 

As the Torah tells us in the book of Leviticus, in ancient times the Yom Kippur service looked a little different than it does today. The service was performed by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, who wore simple white garments—hence my simple white garments (different than the white garments of the guys in the Woody Allen story). The ritual centered on three acts of confession and sacrifice he performed. The Kohen Gadol first confessed and sought forgiveness for his own sins and those of his family, then for those of his tribe, and finally for those of all of Am Yisrael, the entire Jewish people. In other words, he moved outward in concentric circles. He first focused on himself and those closest to him, next on his community, and finally on the nation.

The model of reflection laid out by the Kohen Gadol is a good one for us to adopt. The ancient rabbis realized this, and constructed our Yom Kippur prayer around it. 

So tonight, as we reflect on our stories—both our stories of the past year and those of the coming year—let’s use the model that’s right in front of us, and consider ourselves and our families, our community, and our larger people and nation. 

I. What’s your story with your family? Who are the most important people in your life? How have you treated them in the past year? How have they treated you? How would you have wanted to treat them? 

There’s an old song by Mike and the Mechanics that you still hear in the grocery store every now and then, called ‘The Living Years.’ You know it. It can be a little cheesy. The refrain goes, “Say it loud, say it clear: You can listen as well as you hear. It’s too late when we die to admit we don’t see eye to eye.” But at the heart of the song is the message that we only have whatever time we have, and, in the words of the song, It’s too late when we die. We only have our time here and now to tell the people who matter to us the words that matter to us, and to them. 

So how will your story be better this year with regard to yourself and your family? What do you wish you could say to a parent or a child or a close friend that you haven’t said? It’s Yom Kippur, the day when we can start anew. So what will your story be? 

II. Next: What’s your story with your community? For many of you here, you have just entered a new community. What will your story be here? Who will your friends be? What causes will you devote yourself to? What organizations and groups will you join? What subjects will you study? How important will classes be to you, and what things would you be willing to skip class to do? 

Beyond campus, we are also part of a larger community here in Evanston and Chicago. What will your story be regarding them? Will you see yourself as an Evanstonian? Will you register to vote here? Will you volunteer in the community? Will you learn about its history, its own story? 

And here’s one other community: The Jewish community. What will your story be with the Yiddin, the Jews? Now, I want to be very clear about this: I’m not giving you guilt. Really, I’m not. Because if I have to appeal to guilt, then I have cheapened what the community of Jewish life has to offer. 

Tonight we are asking, What’s your story? That’s not a Jewish question. That’s a human question. All human beings ask that question. But what we’re doing tonight is exploring it through the community of Jewish life. That’s a literal community, in the form of the living, breathing people in this room. It’s also a community of texts and values and ideas and stories, a community of readers and writers who go backwards in time to Maimonides and King David and Moses and all the Jews in between. And it goes forward in time to include all the thoughts and insights and discussions of people around the world, both those who are on the planet right now, and those yet to be born. It includes you and me. We are all linked, we are all connected, by the rich and thick tradition of Jewish thought and language. 

That is an amazing gift. Think about it for a second. It’s a stupendously amazing gift. So many people in our society don’t have this—a thick culture, a community that helps us find ourselves and make sense of our stories, a community that transcends the limits of time and space and creates sacred moments for us to connect with one another and reflect on our stories. 

So what will your story be with Jewish life this year? How will you deepen your Jewish story? How will you thicken your Jewish story? Maybe you’ll learn more, and take a Jewish studies class here at Northwestern. Maybe you’ll go on a birthright Israel trip (www.freeisraeltrip.org) and discover what your story is in the land of the Jewish people. Maybe you’ll host Shabbat dinner for your friends once a month and create a space for them and yourself to learn and reflect. 

What will your story be with the many communities you are part of? And what will your story be with the Jews? 

And finally, what will your story be with regard to our nation and our world? As we all know, these are times of immense challenges. From Iraq to Darfur, from global climate change to Israel’s relationship with her neighbors and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, these are challenging times. On this Yom Kippur we wonder, what will the story of the world be? What will be the story of Darfur? What will be the story of Iraq? What will be the story of Israel? What will be the story of the planet? These are open questions. And these are your questions, our questions. What will we do to write the world’s story? 

Sometimes our urge is to check out, to say, the story of the world isn’t my story. It’s too big. What can I do? But my friends, as our texts and our liturgy remind us, and as the prophet Jonah about whom we read on Yom Kippur learned, you can’t hide from the challenges of the world. You can’t hide from what God and God’s creation demand of us. We have no choice but to be engaged. And we can write the story, we can write a different ending. Indeed we must. 

So what will your story be this year? What will be your story about the world? What will your story be about the Jewish community, about Chicago, about Evanston, about Northwestern? What will your story be with your family? What will your story be with yourself? It’s Yom Kippur. On every day, but on this day especially, our stories are being written. We are writing them. Our friends and family are writing them. Our communities are writing them. Our world is writing them. What will your story be? 

I want to bless you all, as I hope you will bless me, with a year of growth, a year of good problems. I want to bless you, as I hope you will bless me, with a year of health and peace. And I want to bless you, as I hope you will bless me, with a year of discovery, a year of authenticity, a year of being yourself, a year of living the story you want to live, the story you are meant to live. Shana tova.

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