Embracing Impermanence

Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg
10 min readSep 27, 2023

Kol Nidre (Eve of Yom Kippur) 2023/5784

Earlier in our service we heard the beautiful music of the Kol Nidre prayer. For centuries, this melody has spoken deeply to our people, conveying the mood and message of Yom Kippur. The melody is what has typically remained important to us, much more so than the words. Because if you look at the words, you’ll see that the text is a dry legal formula. We are declaring any vows that we make in the coming year to be null and void, if we are unable to fulfill them.

But as I looked closely, the words of Kol Nidre took on new meaning for me this year. In fact, the mechanism of the Kol Nidre feels quite compassionate in its understanding that we humans live in a reality that is constantly changing, from moment to moment. This legal formula acknowledges that we may make a vow at one moment, but then the conditions will change, and we will need a mechanism of release. As this new year begins we project forward to next new year, and we give ourselves an out. We allow for the inevitable — that change will happen.

This prayer is just one example of how Yom Kippur confronts us with the impermanence of all things, including our very existence, while at the same time provides us with reassurance and compassion.

I came face to face with this reality of change and impermanence earlier this year when I got some blood test results back. Don’t worry — everything is fine! What I learned is something very normal for a woman my age. I have officially entered menopause. My ovaries are barely producing estrogen anymore. I can now legitimately call myself a crone!

These results were no surprise. It’s been a yearslong rollercoaster ride of fluctuating hormones, hot flashes, night sweats and other lovely symptoms that brought me to this moment. (And now, if you see me fanning myself, you’ll know why.) But even though it wasn’t a surprise, I was thrown off balance by the news.

On the one hand, it felt momentous. I had reached the end of a 35 yearslong chapter in my life that started with my coming of age and included first boyfriends, getting married, becoming a rabbi, both of my pregnancies, nursing my babies, and many more important milestones. On the other hand, this change felt utterly invisible, and in that sense, painful.

Although more than half of the people in this room have already or will someday experience menopause, you may notice some discomfort at hearing me speaking publicly about this life change. In our culture we don’t talk about this change, and there is no ritual to ferry us across this transition.

I see several reasons for this silence. First, menopause only happens to women and people with female body parts, and those experiences are typically written out of the dominant patriarchal narrative of what a human life is like. Also, menopause is about real gritty things like menstruation, sex and fertility- not the fantasies about these things that our pop culture performs and expects us to mimic.

Most of all, I think we are silent about menopause because it is a change that points towards death. While teen romance, BMitzvahs, and weddings are beginnings that we love to talk about, menopause marks a transition towards aging, and the end of life; and we resist acknowledging endings.

I think this is what makes Yom Kippur so powerful. It is one time every year where we look straight on at the truth of our mortality.

We will face this truth when we recite the terrible litany of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer tomorrow morning: “who shall live and who shall die; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by sword and who by beast.” We cannot control the fact that our lives are limited and that death truly could come at any moment. We are impermanent beings — “Our origin is dust, and dust is our end. Like vessels of clay in the process of breaking, like withering grass, like fading flowers, like passing shadows, like emptying clouds, like blowing wind, like scattering dust, like a vanishing dream.”

And yet, that same Unetaneh prayer tells us, our destiny — the way we will live and our legacy after we are gone — is not etched in stone. The decree can be eased through “teshuva,” repentance and forgiveness; through “tefillah,” prayer and ritual; and through “tzedakah,” acts of generosity and of justice.

In fact, I think the prayer is saying — when we embrace our impermanence, when we let go of our resistance to the fact that we will die, when we let go of our fear that this all is temporary — then we find that we are free: to change, to forgive, to let go, to give — to live fully in this moment, which is all that we have, and to let that be enough.

The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh taught[1]:

We may be tempted to say that because things are impermanent, there is suffering. But the Buddha encouraged us to look again. Without impermanence, life is not possible. How can we transform our suffering if things are not impermanent? How can our [children] grow up into [exceptional adults]? How can the situation in the world improve? We need impermanence for social justice and for hope.

If you suffer, he writes, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. When a flower dies, you don’t suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent. But you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away. If you look deeply into impermanence, you will do your best to make her happy right now.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that love, justice, forgiveness, hope, caring, joy, gratitude — all these good human qualities are possible, because life is finite.

For me, the experience of menopause lined up almost precisely with the moment of sending our oldest child off to college. That too was a moment of loss, and of feeling my age, and I could have gotten stuck there. But after moving Amina into their dorm room, when I allowed myself to accept that this is where we are in life now, I was able to feel gratitude and joy.

Letting go of a child and fully taking them in as a young adult, on their own in their new life, has been one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had as a parent, and it allows me to learn how to love them in a new way. It WAS a moment of feeling my age, but in a good way: in a way which makes me want to more fully inhabit the time of life that I’m in now.

Our Untaneh Tokef prayer teaches that all of these things — love, justice, hope, forgiveness — also help to temper “judgment’s severe decree.” These human qualities make this impermanent life a life worth living, a life God would want us to live. Impermanence is what gives us hope that the world can get better — it is what gives us faith that suffering can be transformed.

The prophet Jonah, whose story we traditionally read on Yom Kippur afternoon, has a very hard time with this concept. The Ninevites, a neighboring people to the Hebrews, and an enemy, have sinned greatly. Their wickedness has become apparent to God, and God wants Jonah to go to Nineveh to proclaim judgment upon them so that they might repent. Jonah resists this calling and runs in the exact opposite direction, taking a boat to Tarshish. But God catches up with Jonah, sends a storm which forces the sailors to throw him overboard, and then sends a big fish to swallow him and spit him out back on land. Jonah finally heads to Nineveh, and proclaims that Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days. The people of Nineveh then put on sackcloth, sit in ashes, fast, and repent. God sees how they have turned from their evil ways, forgives them, and renounces the punishment.

This really, really bothers Jonah.

“O God!” he prays, “Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country?

That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.”

“Please, YHVH, take my life, for I would rather die than live,” he begs.

While God is easily convinced to renounce their anger, to withdraw the punishment, and to give the Ninevites another chance, Jonah can’t stand it! He can’t stand that God is changing course here, that God’s punishment isn’t etched in stone, that God’s anger isn’t forever. God’s willingness to let go makes it very difficult for Jonah to hold on to his perception of the Ninevites as a wicked people, deserving of destruction. He would rather die than live to see this.

Then, Jonah leaves the city and finds a place to camp out. God provides a gourd plant to grow up over Jonah to give him shade. Jonah is very happy about the plant. But the next day God sends a worm which attacks the plant so that it withers. It gets so hot that Jonah begs for death yet again.

Whereas in the first instance, with Nineveh, Jonah can’t stand the impermanence of God’s anger, here Jonah can’t stand the impermanence of God’s comfort.

Boy, does Jonah suffer. And he causes most of that suffering to himself. He is so self-righteous about the Ninevites’ wickedness that his ego hurts when he witnesses God forgiving them. He is so anxious about the death of the gourd plant that he would rather die than find himself another source of shade.

At the end God points out that Jonah cared about the gourd plant which appeared overnight and perished overnight. So much the more so does God care about Nineveh, an entire city full of mortal human beings.

If Jonah could only open his heart to the reality of change and impermanence, perhaps he would not suffer so deeply. Perhaps he could even access some gratitude for the possibility of God’s forgiveness, and thankfulness for the life that he has in the moment.

Sometimes we resist change, like Jonah. Other times, it seems that circumstances will never change. And when change finally does come, if we can embrace it, it can feel like a miracle.

Until about 9 years ago, my mother-in-law Jacquie had gone 25 years without speaking to her sister Pat. Decades ago, when Pat got married, she and her husband isolated themselves from the rest of her family. Her husband could also be critical and controlling. Jacquie and their mother were concerned about Pat’s wellbeing, and fearing that Pat’s husband would take the money for himself, her mother left Pat out of her will. Pat was so angry that she did not attend her mother’s funeral.

About 9 years ago, Pat contacted Jacquie out of the blue. She was contemplating leaving the marriage and needed emotional support. There was a lot of anger and hurt, and a lot of time and distance between them. But Jacquie opened her heart to Pat and reconnected. In fact, all of these years, Jacquie and their other sister Jo-Anne had actually saved the portion of their mother’s inheritance that rightfully belonged to Pat, in case there came a time when it would be helpful to give it to her. And so, that summer, the 2 sisters gave Pat that money so she could support herself financially if she needed it.

A few weeks later, Pat and Jacquie got together in person for the first time in 25 years. When the sisters saw each other, they started from the present and moved forward together anew, rather than dwelling on the past. They had both grown and matured, and in Jacquie’s words, they both had had “the shit kicked out of them” enough that whatever grudges they were holding on to just didn’t matter anymore. They were different people now. They had changed.

Rabbi Alan Lew, a brilliant teacher of Judaism and mindfulness, wrote, “Forgiveness is giving up our hopes for a better past.” Or in Jacquie’s words, “It doesn’t matter if I was right all along or what percentage of the fault lies with whom. What matters is the relationship.”

The forgiveness between these sisters has opened the door to more joy and connection in our family. Pat, her daughter Marcy and her granddaughter Leila, came to our kid Amina’s Bat Mitzvah a few years ago, and we got to meet them all for the first time. It was such a joyful reunion, and we have continued to visit with each other over the years since. As far as Pat and Jacquie go, they text every day. They’ve become essential supports to each other through the hardest times, with Pat supporting Jaquie through the grief of losing her son Matt and Pat’s challenges with her own son.

Because of Jacquie’s willingness to be vulnerable, to open herself to the possibility of change and forgiveness, we all have been released from that vow they had made to never speak with each other, and we have more love in our lives than we did before.

We are each like a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade. And this can lead us to great sadness, great fear, and a deep desire to hold on. But Yom Kippur is here to urge us to embrace that impermanence. To see it as a gift that can liberate us. We have so little time — why spend it clinging to past hurts or trying to fend off inevitable endings?

Another mindfulness teacher Ajahn Chah once said, “If you let go a little, you’ll have a little peace. If you let go a lot you’ll have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you’ll have complete peace.”

As the Kol Nidre prayer instructs us, when we release our clenched fists and examine the vows we are gripping, the grudges or self-righteousness we are holding, the fear or the wishes that things could be different we are clinging to, we will see that truly, our hands are empty. So let go. And when you do, you’ll find that there is so much more space, so much more openness, so much more peace.

[1] Cultivating the Mind of Love — The Practice of Looking Deeply in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. Thich Nhat Hanh, 1996. Published by Parallax Press, Berkeley, California.

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Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg

Rabbi Goldenberg is the founder of Malkhut, a progressive Jewish spiritual community in Western Queens (malkhutqueens.org). She resides in Jackson Heights.