written by Rabbi Michael Friedland
Please imagine this: You walk into the synagogue on Yom Kippur as we all did last night. But this time something is different. You are familiar with the imagery of the three books opened on Rosh HaShanah and closed on Yom Kippur: the Book of Life, the Book of Death and the Book of Suspended Sentence. But this time the books are actually there on the bima. And names are being called. Each time a name is called it is written in one of the books. There's no hand, there's no quill; the pages of the book simply rustle and then quiver, and when the rustling stops, the name is already written. If it is written in the Book of Life, relief goes up all around the room; if it is written in the Book of Death a cold silence grips the sanctuary. All of a sudden you hear your name being called, and you want to cry out, No! No! No! Not now! I didn't realize this was real. I am completely unprepared. Please give me some more time. The voice continues to intone your name. And so you determine: for the next twenty-four hours you rehearse your own death. You wear a shroud, the kittel and, like a dead person, you neither eat nor drink nor fornicate. You summon the desperate strength of life’s last moments…. A fist beats against the wall of your heart relentlessly, until you are brokenhearted and confess to your great crime…Then a chill grips you. The gate between heaven and earth has suddenly begun to close…. This is your last chance. Everyone has run out of time. Every heart has broken. The gate clangs shut, the great horn sounds one last time.”
This image is based on a scene in Rabbi Alan Lew’s book This is Real And You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. Rabbi Lew begins the journey with Tisha B’Av, the holiday that commemorates destructive and tragic events in Jewish history, through Sukkot; it is a journey that takes the soul from brokenness and despair to healing.
Within that more extended journey is the path we take from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur. The Yamim Nora’im. Translated sometimes as the Days of Awe, but might be translated as the Terrible Days. Terrible because during these days we undergo true existential angst.
Rosh HaShanah, though referred to as a Day of Judgment, is also a call to life, all our Scriptural portions concern themselves with birth. We declare “HaYom Harat Olam “Today is the Birth Day of the World.” Although technically “harat” means pregnant, and Olam can mean eternity. Thus, the great historian Gerson Cohen translated Hayom Harat Olam as the day pregnant with eternity – everything lies before us, new vistas, new opportunities, new chances.
But Yom Kippur is a call to death. Throughout the 25 hours of this day, we descend into death: we refrain from eating and drinking, we wear a death shroud, we do not engage in physical pleasure, we plead for divine gracenot to condemn us. The Maharal, Rabbi Judah Lowe, notes that each of the five afflictions we impose on ourselves – no eating and drinking, no sexual behavior, no leather clothes, no washing, and no anointing with pleasant smelling oils or perfumes – is designed to create dissonance between our souls and our bodies. It is a day of discomfort.
Which is odd because for most of the year Judaism defies death. Why are cohanim prohibited from entering cemeteries? It is because in ancient Israel, the priests served in the Tabernacle, the most sacred space in Jewish consciousness, the point of contact between God and humanity. God is all Life, the sanctuary was a place where death could not enter and the priest was supposed to remove himself from contact with death. In traditional Jewish medical ethics, doing anything that might accelerate the dying process is forbidden. As one of the characters in Schindler’s List expresses it, “even an hour of life is still life”.
Yet on this most holy of days for one extended moment we stare death in the face. Yom Kippur forces us to confront the reality of death, to consider that today might truly be our last on this earth. Yom Kippur is more than a reminder of death, it is a dress rehearsal. And so we ask, why?
When God finished creating the world, God stood back and eulogized this creation “God saw all that He had done and, behold, it was very good. dóOaVm bwäøf_h´…nIh◊w” But the sage Rabbi Meir was reported to have a Torah with a different text in it. In the Torah of Rabbi Meir it was written, “twVm bwäøf_h´…nIh◊w , behold death is good.” Death, the ultimate emblem of our finitude, our mortality, was inscribed in Rabbi Meir’s Torah as the great good of the creation process. How could this be? Ernst Becker in his classic work the Denial of Death insists that fear of death is the central challenge to human existence. The psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, puts it this way: “It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes easy to postpone the things you must do….”
Rabbi David Hartman in his book The Living Covenant finds in Rabbi Meir’s text an endorsement for mortality. “Creation”, he writes, “involves an irreducible separation between God and the world. Both God and His world deserve to be taken seriously in their radical separateness. And God validates and praises the finiteness of the world: God saw all that he had done and it was very good." If God considers the finite otherness of the world good then our mortality has a unique dignity and value.
That value is considered by many who have contemplated the meaning of death. Bahya ibn Paquda the medieval philosopher encouraged one to think about death as a way to spur teshuvah. “A person who has thought of his death before its arrival has improved himself”. The focus on death should not bring terror but contrition, encouraging one to keep one’s moral house in order and to atone for any transgressions committed in this world as a way of being prepared for whatever lies before us.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote about the psychological process of death and mourning noted the value of not living in denial of death: “when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have; you take the time that day to grow, to become more of who you really are, to reach out to other human beings.” Or as Morrie Schwartz in Tuesdays with Morrie puts it, “When you learn how to die, you learn how to live”.
Laura Carstensen is a professor at Stanford University. When she was 21 already a divorced mother of one with no interests in academics, she was involved in a near–fatal car crash. She spent months in recovery. "I got better enough to realize how close I had come to losing my life, and I saw very differently what mattered to me. What mattered were other people in my life. Every thought I'd had before that moment was: what was I going to do next in life and how would I become successful or not successful – all of a sudden... When I looked at what seemed important to me, very different things mattered".
Thus began her career in clinical psychology. Her professional research showed that as people aged they reported that life was more emotionally satisfying and a more stable experience even as old age narrowed the lives they led. The conventional explanation for this was these were hard won life lessons and only the elderly could appreciate this. But based on her own experience she questioned that. Suppose it merely had to do with perspective – your personal sense of how finite your time in this world is.
Years of research later she formulated a hypothesis: how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have. When you are young and healthy you believe you will live forever. You are willing to delay gratification for a brighter future. You widen your networks of friends and connections. When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire what the sits atop Abraham Maslow's well known Pyramid of Human Needs – achievement, creativity, and other attributes of self-actualization. But as your horizons contract – when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain – your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.
Thus if we could consciously put ourselves into a mindset to recognize how finite and uncertain our time on earth is, we could concentrate on what we consider most important for our lives to matter. And not only in the time that we are of this world, but what remains in the material world after we are gone.
On Yom Kippur we imagine the moment when the high priest would enter into the sacred center, the holy of holies. In that most holy and mysterious space there was precisely nothing – a vacated space, a charged emptiness. Alan Lew in considering the Avodah service that we relive liturgically on Yom Kippur writes, “We need a taste of this emptiness, to give us a sense of what will go with us, what will endure as we make this great crossing. What's important? What is at the core of our life? What will live on after we are wind and space? What will be worthy of that endless, infinitely powerful silence? And what are we clinging to that isn’t important, that won't endure, that isn't worthy? What do we want to live on after us? Our money, our pride? Our anger, our selfishness? If not, we better let go of them now, before they become what we are, what we will always be in that great emptiness for which we are bound. What lives on of the people we have loved and lost? What breaks our hearts when we think of them? What do we miss so much that it aches? … That's what survives that great crossing with us. That's what makes it through the passage from life to death. And we taste death on Yom Kippur to remind us of what we must hold onto, and what we must let go of, of who we are and where we come from.”
Rabbi Lew indicates that the power of the unrelenting deliberation on our death on Yom Kippur is not only to embolden us to consider what we want to become but what we need to let go.
The deliberation of death on this day reminds us that time is short, too short to waste, too short to let pride and despair trap one in the life pattern with little in it to savor or respect. The very awareness of mortality puts life into bold relief. No aspect of life can be taken for granted; no feature of one's personality is either eternal or absolutely necessary. By staring at our own death on this day, we can review, fine tune, or alter our lives with a new consciousness of alternatives.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg also offers us that meditating on our deaths re-energizes our life forces. Many individuals who have survived near death experiences, returned to life with a new understanding and fervor for living. Both the body and the psyche revolt against non-being by reasserting life.
We embrace the vestments and habits of death on Yom Kippur in order that we might seize life. Admitting our mortality humbles us and aids us in doing penitence now lest we procrastinate until it is too late. Thinking about our mortality gives us perspective on what is essential to our lives, what must we keep, what should we jettison, what are we lacking and must seek. And heeding our finitude can also bring us to the most important quality in our relationship to God – Gratitude.
In Dr. Atul Gawande’s excellent book, Being Mortal, about the way medicine in America confronts old age and death, he shares the story of his father, also a physician, who was found to suffer from an inoperable cancer of the spine. Although his father was elderly he was still very active and the diagnosis shocked the whole family. After attempts to wrest the disease failed, his father chose instead of fighting the disease to accept palliative measures. Gawande writes, “only now did I begin to recognize how understanding the finitude of one's time could be a gift. After my father was given his diagnosis, he'd initially continued daily life as he always had – his clinical work, his charity projects, his thrice weekly tennis games – but the sudden knowledge of the fragility of his life narrowed his focus and altered his desires, just as Laura Carstensen's research on perspective suggested it would. It made him visit with his grandchildren more often, put in an extra trip to see his family in India, and tamp down new ventures.” Gawande’s father was able to focus on what was essential to his life and in doing so not only he, but his entire family benefitted from his new found perspective of limited time.
In a beautiful scene in Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie who is dying of ALS, tries to impress upon his student Mitch Albom the value of knowing your time is limited. During one conversation he points to the window with the light streaming in. “You see that? You can go out there, outside, anytime. You can run up and down the block and go crazy. I can’t do that. I can't go out. I can’t be out there without fear of getting sick. But you know what? I appreciate that window more than you do” Appreciate it?, Albom asks. “Yes, says Morrie, “I look out that window everyday. I notice the change in the trees. how strong the wind is blowing. It’s as if I can actually see time passing through the window pane. Because I know my time is almost done, I am drawn to nature like I’m seeing it for the first time”.
Philip Gould, a former British Labour Party strategist, wrote a book about his terminal illness When I die: Lessons from the Death Zone. In it, Gould argued that “the knowledge that you are going to die one day gives you the sense that there is meaning in your life. When you are going to die soon, you really do feel the absolute intensity of life. Life becomes completely precious, not just because there is so little of it left but because the actual nature of experience is more fulfilling, more protean than it was before.” It is ironic, isn’t it, that it is death or impending death that helps so many appreciate the gift of life.
Calev Ben Dor, in an essay published recently in HaAretz, was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. The malignant tumor was removed and he was given the provincial “new lease on life”. He considered how much just such a contemplation of his mortality had changed him for the better. But he admitted, “I find it extremely challenging to sustain a post-illness life of constant appreciation, of living each day as if one’s life is a gift – just like it's hard to maintain that feeling of relaxation experienced on holiday upon one’s return to routine.”
And this is true. None of us can live every day as if it is our last, none of us can achieve the high level of intensity of living life to its fullest every day. Old habits emerge, we focus on the routine, we get lost in the daily patterns of life. And that is why one day a year our tradition insists we put those patterns and habits to the side and dwell in a ‘death zone’ for 25 hours – energizing us, humbling us, focusing us on what our lives can be.
Alan Lew writes, “What is my life really about? What is the truth of my life? The rabbis knew that few of us ask this question until it's too late; few of us ask this question until the last moments of our life. So they have us stage a dramatic re-creation of our death on this day.”
Every morning, we begin our worship with a passage that asks these questions: What are we? What is the meaning of our life? How truly good are our attempts at compassion and righteousness? What is the true nature of our ability to control and our strength? However we hardly pay attention to them as we speed through the morning worship. But they are valuable questions we should ask ourselves every day. And yet we don’t. Most wait until the terminality of life is in sight. Yom Kippur though stops us through its use of somber rituals urging us to ask these questions over and over again. Rabbi Jack Riemer reminds us we are not supposed to wait for a hanging, or for the doctors to pronounce that awesome word of judgment "malignant," because by then it might be too late. We are supposed to ask these questions all the time, but at least once a year, this solemn day forces the questions upon us.
One of the most famous Rabbis of the last century was Rabbi Israel Kagan, known as the "Chofetz Chaim". One day a group of tourists from America, traveling in Eastern Europe, went to visit the famous Chofetz Chaim in his town of Radun. When they came to see him they saw the world famous Rabbi in a small study with a rickety desk and a few books.
One of the incredulous tourists said, "Rabbi, where is all your stuff?"
The Chofetz Chaim smiled, "Where is all yours?"
"But" the man answered, "we are just passing through."
The Chofetz Chaim nodded, "Me too."
All year long we concern ourselves with remaining where we are, trying to make our lives meaningful. We use various stratagems, some worthy – like loving our family, doing good for others; others superficial – trying to achieve honors and prestige, accumulating things, engaging in pleasures and attempting to satisfy desires. But one day every year we confront our deaths, not the idea of death, but our individual deaths, that we may appreciate that we too are just passing through. How will we make that journey worthwhile? Let us use our time on this day to answer that question wisely.