I found myself tearing up in shul this year on Rosh HaShana as I read the always-moving words of the unetaneh tokef prayer. One of the most vividly poetic passages in our liturgy, it visualizes our passing before God on this day, like sheep before their shepherd, whereupon he judges us for the coming year.
Who will live and who will die. Who by water and who by fire. Who by hunger and who by plague.
But the line that really got me this year was, “Who in a timely manner, and who in an untimely manner.”
This past year, I had the difficult experience of knowing five people who all died young, and before their times. Some I was closer with than others, but these were all people who had played more than a passing role in my life at some point.
Beyond that, they were quite different from each other. They ranged in age from late 30s to early 60s. One was divorced, one recently married, and others single. Their work lives covered many fields, and they achieved their professional goals to varying degrees, some more than others.
But as I read those words, “who in an untimely manner,” they were bound together in my mind as one. They were all too young to die, and each of their deaths shocked me. They all truly touched me and others around them.
Death is the natural order of things. So in a sense, it is a bit odd that we grow sad when people die. Everyone dies eventually. We all will at some point. But we grow sad because we see the dead in relation to ourselves, more than objectively for who they were.
If someone had achieved the ultimate goals in their life and then died, we would likely still grow sad. We will miss them and their advice to us. We think about what else they might have achieved had they lived on. We dwell on potential and the varying degrees of its realization.
Thus, when we mourn our beloved, our thoughts turn to our own lives and how we live them. Are we living up to our potential? Are we doing the best we can to be the best we can be?
Naturally, these thoughts grow more pronounced when our beloved have died at a young age. The tendency to idealize them in our minds becomes stronger. And so be it! Because remembering and memorializing the dead necessarily becomes about us at least as much as it is about them.
So when I look back at these five who we lost this past year, I think about the good things I can take from each of their models. And I think about how I can be a better person in the year ahead.
After enumerating the various untimely ends that a person may come to, punctuated by the repetition of the phrase “On Rosh HaShana it is inscribed, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed,” the unetaneh tokef prayer adds an unusual phrase. After the heaviness of fate, the prayer makes a statement that is one of the major innovations of Jewish theology: “But repentance, prayer and charity remove the yoke of the decree.”
In Judaism, nothing is ever final until the very end. We can always change our fate, even after Yom Kippur. What truly matters is how we live our lives on a daily basis. If we improve our thoughts and actions, it makes no difference what was written and sealed over the High Holy Days.
We can always change our fate.
And yet, we also can start from today, in the middle of the Ten Days of Repentance.
So I look at these five who died young, and I think about how I can be better this coming year. Among other things, to relentlessly dedicate myself to my goals, to deepen my love for Israel, to deepen my love for Judaism and the Jewish people, to educate myself incessantly about anything and everything, to dedicate myself to the needs of others, and to remember that we must always preciously guard our leisure time as well as our work hours.
This Rosh HaShana season, I remember Howie Osterer, Gil Marks, Yair Shapiro, Sally Windman and Mechaya Ruth Read. May their neshamot have aliyot in Shamayim. May their souls rise in Heaven.