The Crown of Good Name (Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5779)

We are completing the journey from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. These ten days are a meditation on what we do between birth and death: Rosh Hashanah is yom harat olam, the Day the World Is Born. And Yom Kippur is the day we rehearse our death by abstaining from life-affirming activities, and wearing white to represent a burial shroud. Between these two days, we confront the fragility of our lives – and reexamine how we want to journey across the length of our days.

That philosopher of life’s fragility, Ecclesiastes talks about this journey of beginnings and endings in a surprising way. He says, טוב שם משמן טוב; ויום המות מיום הולדו / “A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death better than the day of birth” (7:1). How can the day of death be better than the day of birth? Don’t we call a birth a simcha, a joy -- and have deep rooted customs of mourning after a death?

A midrash on this verse illustrates how the day of death could be better than the day of birth using the analogy of a ship that goes out to sea with great fanfare, and returns to shore with no one there to greet it. When something is new it’s normal for us to get excited. We can’t wait to try out our new Alexa, or read the book we just got, or see a great-grandchild for the first time.

But according to Kohelet, it should be the opposite. When a ship goes out to sea, we shouldn’t celebrate. Beginnings are full of uncertainty. With a big journey ahead, fraught with storms and other challenges, we’re not even sure the ship will complete its mission! When it returns — having survived the storms, successfully navigated its course -- that’s when we should celebrate!

The midrash says this is also true of life. Yes, we’re emotional beings, not logical ones: death makes us sad, and birth makes us joyful. But logically, we would not celebrate birth. We don’t know what lies ahead for this new life! But when someone arrives at the other end of their life’s journey, says the midrash — that’s when we would celebrate the challenges they successfully overcame to stay their course and complete their voyage.

This is what Kohelet meant by “the day of death [is better] than the day of birth:” we have great reason to celebrate a journey when it has been completed — when we suddenly see how all the seemingly small choices someone made over his or her lifetime added up to a life fully lived.

Still, this is not easy.

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So how does the first half of our verse -- טוב שם משמן טוב / “A good name is better than good oil” fit in with the second half we just talked about? What is a good name, a shem tov, that it is better than good oil. To answer this question, our sages describe a shem tov as a metaphorical “crown” that we merit over the course of an exemplary life. There are different crowns one can acquire in life: there is the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. But this fourth crown, the crown of a shem tov, “surpasses them all.”

How is a shem tov better than any of these other crowns? Kingship and priesthood are social statuses that people inherit, no matter what kind of person they are. Even the crown of Torah can be acquired by a student who is learned, but is not living a life of virtue. These crowns are likened to “good oil”, a temporary acquisition. But the crown of a good name, a shem tov, isn’t about a temporary status we acquire in this life. A shem tov is given to those who live their lives with integrity, and it remains after they leave this world.

We might glimpse the crown of a shem tov in the moments we realize all the seemingly small choices we make each day will someday become the life we have lived. Our liturgy tells us the choices we make each day should be guided by teshuva (repentance), tefilah (prayer), and tzedekah (righteous giving). It’s not just about coming to Yom Kippur services, but what we do afterwards: How can we nourish our inner lives this year? What can we do to be more generous? Who can we be more loving towards?

This is what Kohelet means when he says, “a good name is better than good oil.” It is not power or honor or knowledge. Ultimately, the only thing we leave behind is our name — the result of how we have conducted ourselves during our life’s journey.

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טוב שם משמן טוב; ויום המות מיום הולדו / “A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of birth” (7:1), says Kohelet.

Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, is a day of beginnings. Ahead sprawls a vast and uncertain journey: storms to be confronted, courses to be charted. On that day of birth, we humbly acknowledge the uncertainty of life. And Yom Kippur, this Day of Endings, is a rehearsal for the end of our days, a time when we hope to have fulfilled our purpose, voyaged through life with integrity. That is why, in some communities, Yom Kippur is actually a day of celebration. A life in ten day’s time. The day our ship comes to shore after a long voyage.

G’mar chatima tova. As we complete our journey this Yom Kippur, may we remember that all the seemingly tiny choices we make each day will, at some point, become the life we have lived. As we picture our ships come to shore, may we feel the joy that comes with living a life of integrity and meaning. May this day help us reflect on what we have done, and see we can do better this year to merit a keter shem tov.

And let us say: amen.