Preparing for Death (from the archives)

This is a commentary on this week’s parashah, Nitzavim, which I wrote many years ago. It first appeared here, and is also published in Living Torah.

This year, Nitzavim/Vayeilech falls on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah, but it is often read on Shabbat Shuvah (Shabbat of Repentance, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur). The themes of death and repentance occur in both these parashiyot and in the Days of Awe. Moses gathers the people to speak to them before his death, and in Deuteronomy 30, variations of the word shuv (“turn,” which has the same root as t’shuvah, “repentance”) appear seven times.

On Yom Kippur in particular, the theme of death in the liturgy often disturbs the modern worshiper. Traditional dress is a kittel, which is also the garment used for burial. We recite the Vidui, confessional prayer, which is traditionally recited before death. In the Un’taneh Tokef, we read that God decides who will live and who will die: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” What can this mean? Are we to believe that our futures are predestined? Or that death is a punishment for wrongdoing, that those dear to us who passed away in the previous year had sinned and repented insufficiently?

In Nitzavim/Vayeilech, God tells Moses that he is about to die. Few of us ever receive such a warning. Beyond a sense of morbidity or a fear of punishment, why should we live with an awareness of our own inevitable death? B’Rosh HaShanah yikateivun uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeichateimun, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” In Hebrew, the word chatimah indicates both a seal and a signature. Each year, each day, whether we live or die, our actions and our words make an imprint on the world and the people around us. At my grandfather’s funeral, I was struck that people consistently said the same things about him. On Yom Kippur that year, the Un’taneh Tokef said to me that through his life, he left a distinct, enduring, and good impression behind.

The word that repeats and declares a theme in the end of Deuteronomy 30 is chayim, “life.” In verse 19 we read, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live.” Some translations read, “so that you and your offspring may live.” Nehama Leibowitz points out the trouble inherent in that verse by quoting the Netziv, who writes in his book Ha’amek Davar, “How, is it conceivable to state: ‘Perform a certain action in order that the action come into being’? If the question facing us is whether to choose life or death, we cannot be advised to choose life in order to live.” She explains, “The means cannot be synonymous with the end” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1993], p. 314). What life do we gain when we choose blessings over curses? How do our choices affect the lives of our offspring?

Perhaps this verse brings us back to the theme of mortality. Moses is facing his own death, and his message forces us to do the same. We learn that as a result of his actions, he is not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Even though God does not tell him he is going to die until chapter 31, immediately following his speech to the people, we get a glimpse of Moses’ own state of mind when he tells the people, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active [or, come and go]. Moreover, Adonai has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan’ ” (Deuteronomy 31:2). What awareness does Moses have at that moment that he feels compelled to pass on to the people? It is the most important lesson of all: that our lives are fleeting, and that we are ultimately judged by the choices we make during our lives.

When we are aware of our own mortality, we are behooved to repent, that is, to return and review our choices and attitudes and to resolve to change them for the better. Our legacy, our immortality, whether or not we are sealed in the Book of Life, is determined not by the continuation or cessation of our physical existence, but by the impact we make, our unique and enduring signature which we leave in the minds and hearts of others.

Other texts to consider on this theme

A Man in His Life

By Yehuda Amichai

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

“Is it not, then, an impossible assignment to which destiny has set us? It does not ask of us that we hold life dear at one moment, and cheap at the next, but that we do both simultaneously.… …only with God can we ease the intolerable tension of our existence. For only when He is given, can we hold life at once infinitely precious and yet as a thing lightly to be surrendered. Only because of Him is it made possible for us to clasp the world, but with relaxed hands; to embrace it, but with open arms. –Rabbi Milton Steinberg, from the sermon “To Hold with Open Arms”

Questions for discussion/thought

  1. In the poem A Man In His Life, what is Yehuda Amichai’s message about the nature of life?
  2. In Rabbi Steinberg’s view, what is a key element in dealing with the ephemeral nature of life?
  3. Compare the two texts above and the parashah. What message can you take away at this time of year about repentance, life, and death?

Seven Challenges for Life from the Jewish Tradition

Here’s a blog post that was published on eJewishPhilanthropy. What are the questions people ask of life, and how does Judaism provide answers?

Response to “What Can We Really Learn From Chabad: A Conservative Perspective”

Rabbi Paul Steinberg’s response to Dr. Windmueller’s piece on the lessons we can learn from Chabad focuses on “the kinds of questions that we ask of Conservative Judaism.” This ignores Rabbi Steinberg’s initial two take-aways: Begin with one Jew at a time, and Meet clients where they are. That is, who is asking questions of Conservative Judaism beyond those people already involved with the movement? If Judaism is to be relevant to the “Jew on the street,” we have to start with the questions that people are asking, not of a movement, and not even of Judaism, but of life.

For me, Judaism can provide an answer to some of life’s basic questions:

  • How can I live a life of meaning?
  • How can my life be more than the span of my days?
  • How should I treat myself and others?
  • How should I spend my time and resources?
  • How can I deal with injustice in the world and in my own life?
  • What can guide me when prevailing beliefs and behaviors don’t seem to make sense?
  • Which values trump others in a dilemma?
  • Who do I care about, and who cares about me?
  • How can I help my children when they face these same questions?

These are questions with which we must all come to terms. Judaism offers some answers. It is comforting to me to begin with Judaism because I am a Jew, and the wisdom of the tradition and its evolution make sense to me. When organizations and individuals reach out to people to connect them to Judaism, it is instructive to keep these questions in mind. Each person is at his or her own place in life’s journey, but the human condition raises these core questions for all of us at different points along the way. When we are confused about why people are spending less time engaged in Jewish organizations than they are in others, I think it is helpful to ask: are we providing some clear guidance in the areas above? Are we doing it better than the other places where people are spending their time and resources?

I was inspired by the link included in Rabbi Steinberg’s piece to The Rebbe’s 10-Point Mitzvah Campaign to consider what 10 mitzvot might be compelling to the modern, liberal “Jew on the street.” Anyone in the business of trying to engage Jews in Judaism should be practicing what they preach, so I think these apply equally to “professional Jews.” These aren’t specifically commandments, so I’ll call them “Challenges for life from the Jewish tradition.” I’ve started with seven, the first three from Pirkei Avot 1:6.

  • Get yourself a teacher. Make it a priority to learn something Jewish. Read a Jewish book, subscribe to a Jewish blog or podcast, watch Jewish movies, study Torah online or in person. Find a topic and a teacher that resonate with you, and make it a priority to learn more about the wisdom of Judaism’s rich tradition. This is about expanding your perspective beyond your own experience and solidifying your sense of yourself and the greater people and history to which you belong.
  • Find yourself a friend. Judaism isn’t a religion of hermits. It’s about being connected. When life has its ups and downs, the Jewish community can support you, but it’s not fair to expect that support without being there to offer it to others. Celebrate life cycle events in community. Find one person to take the journey with you.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. In terms of freeing myself from the ugly habit of judging others or feeling judged, I have found that this deceivingly simple ethical injunction goes a very long way. To me, this is about forgiving yourself and others and living with grace. Clearly, the Rebbe’s reminder to “love your fellow” is central. This take on that teaching is helpful to me in giving one suggestion on how to do it.
  • Celebrate Judaism. Judaism should not be defined by what we don’t do, who we are not, or the people who don’t like us. This challenge is about choosing a Jewish ritual that is positive and making it part of your life. As a Jewish educator, I reflected that I seemed to spend a lot of time encouraging other people to incorporate new mitzvot, but it had been a long time since I had added anything to my own practice. Pick something new to try. Do it intentionally and reflect on it.
  • Give it away. Spend some of your resources to make the world better. Stretch beyond the concerns of yourself and your family, and give money, time, food or goods to a people or cause that need it. Of course you already to this. Do some more. This one addresses nearly all the life questions above.
  • Struggle with God. We are the people of Israel. That name means “struggle with God.” When is the last time you visited your theology? Lots of folks have some kind of existential crisis in their young adulthood, come to terms with it, and never look back. Are you the same person you were when you decided what you believe about God? My challenge is this: think about it again. Read something. Write something. Try out some sophisticated ideas that match where you are in your own intellectual, spiritual and emotional development.
  • Speaking of Israel… We live in a time when the Jewish people have a homeland. Don’t miss it. Do one thing to deepen your connection to the land and the people. Get to know Israelis; read an Israeli blog; study the news about Israel; read a book on Israel’s history or a famous Israeli; check out some of the cool online exhibits, interactive maps and websites; listen to some Israeli music; try some Israeli food; learn about an Israeli artist; learn a little (more) Hebrew. Visit Israel.

What would you add or change?