Winning the Lottery: Yom Kippur and Gift of Life

And who by fire, who by water

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial

So starts “Who by fire” by Leonard Cohen. Here he sings his modern version of the traditional Hebrew prayer “Unetanneh Tokef“, chanted on Yom Kippur. In this prayer we discuss who will be inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh HaShanna and sealed in that book on Yom Kippur. This prayer evokes the precarious nature of life. 

In saying Unetanneh Tokef we are awakened to the perception of Damocles coming to an awareness that Dionysius’s sword is hanging overhead. Our lives are in peril. But it is not just a sword, it might be by fire, water, etc. It seems random and strangely sobering. It is as if we are reliving our own version of Shirley Jackson’s Lottery

The random nature of our mortality is underscored within the Temple sacrifice of the scapegoats we commemorate on Yom Kippur. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol took two goats and presented them at the door of the Tabernacle. Two goats were taken and by lot determined its purpose. One would be selected to be for God, which was offered as a blood sacrifice, and the other to be the scapegoat to be sent away with all of our sins into the wilderness and pushed down Azazel, a steep ravine, where it died.

We see this same idea of random lots again on Purim. There we see that Haman wants to kill all of the Jews. There in the Megilah we read:  

On the first month, that is, the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, pur—which means “the lot”—was cast before Haman concerning every day and every month, [until it fell on] the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar. (Esther 3:7)

The holiday’s name Purim comes from “pur” the random selection of when Haman and his allies were going to commit genocide. But, what does this have to do with Yom Kippur?

Some say that Yom Kippur which is referred to in the Torah as Yom Kippurim. While this is traditionally translated to mean “The Day of Atonement”, some say it actually means “ The day that is like Purim”, or Yom K’Purim. Both Yom Kippur and Purim are days in which we are aware of our mortality and our collective lot in life. Both seem random, but it seems that the lot of the scapegoat is fated, where Esther steps forward to serve her people and in so doing affirms her and our collective destiny. What is the role of our agency in determining the outcome? On Yom Kippur we acknowledge that it might seem random (who by fire and who my water), but affirm our own agency like Esther K’Purim in determining the outcome. 

I was thinking of this idea of agency and chance in the context of people testing their DNA through Gift of Life. What are the odds that we have in our body the cure for someone else’s disease? What a blessing to have in our agency the capacity to save another human life? We might not be able to determine who by fire and who by water, but we can save people from an extraordinary number of terminal illnesses.  This is an amazing way to commit our lives to a higher purpose. Continued efforts of Gift of Life have led to 23,000+ matches and 4,300+ life-saving transplants. We cannot win that lottery unless each of us get tested and donate if they are a match. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

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