Courage, Humility, and Practicing for Death

Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for the one day we are all guaranteed: the day of our death.

I don’t want to think about it. My death or anyone else’s. Thank you very much.

But I suppose don’t have that option.

I thought I did. I’m 31 and, with the exception of grandparents whom I loved but, in all honesty, did not know all that well, I have yet to experience the death of someone really close to me. I’m deeply thankful for this, but it’s also terrifying. I worry, selfishly, about how I’ll handle it. I wonder whether I’m even equipped to deal with loss.

I suppose I should be grateful, then, that the holiest day of the year is a rehearsal for death. I get to practice. I get a spiritual warm-up for thinking of time as more cyclical than linear, for appreciating the time I have with my loved ones now, and for seeing this body – this vehicle – God has given me for traveling through time and space as nothing more than dust and ashes. I don’t want this practice; I can feel myself rage against it, numbing the anxiety it creates with distractions of all kinds. But on some level I’m glad I get to. I guess.

Recently, I was walking around the block with my two year-old on a breezy, sunny day. We pointed out flowers and trucks and the odd feral cat as we tripped along the sidewalk. I pointed out the ants on the sidewalk and, as we stopped to examine them, he stepped on one. He quickly moved his foot and took a look.

“Ant fall down,” he commented.

I am not having this conversation. I am not having this conversation.

“Yeah,” I said. “The ant fell down.”

Someday I’ll have to talk to my kid about death.

So I guess I’m glad I get to practice.

On Yom Kippur it’s sealed: who will live, who will die (and, in disturbingly precise detail, how). But, we’re told in Unetaneh Tokef, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah can deflect the ro’a of the decree. Returning, prayer, and righteousness can make the badness of it all seem less bad.

Makes sense. Taking this sliver of time we get on the planet to make things a little better is humbling. It puts things in perspective. Yes, as the familiar saying of Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshiska goes, in one pocket I carry with me this reminder that I am dust and ashes. But there’s still the note in the other pocket that tells me that the world was created for me. In a recent video the fabulous Tiffany Shlain described the relationship of these two notes as balancing humility with courage. I love that.

I’d argue, though, that the two concepts are really intertwined. It takes humility to have courage, and it takes courage to have humility.

Courage, I’ve heard quoted many times, is being afraid of something and doing it anyway. And yes, I am afraid (and I know I’m not the only one). So this Yom Kippur, I’m going to summon up my courage and be humble. I’ll do my best to rehearse for death, and do it with feeling. Maybe that’s what this day is all about.

This post was inspired by an ELI talk by Dr. Michael Slater, someone who embodies courage and humility.

About the Author
Miriam Brosseau is Principal of Tiny Windows Consulting, half of the "biblegum pop" duo Stereo Sinai, and a co-host of the podcast Throwing Sheyd.
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