As we further approach the Days of Awe we are thrust into recognition of our mortality: “who by water and who by fire…who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst” (See the Unataneh Tokef prayer). Even if we are not totally powerless, and we do what we can to take responsibility — in the end we are “like clay in the hands of the potter”. Time passes. And our lives are “like a passing shadow”.
It’s a known exercise in spiritual retreats to imagine that our death is near and to think about our life from this perspective. Tantra teachers outside of Melbourne used to run retreats called “The last 30 days”. This year my friend and colleague Amichai Lau-Lavie started his annual 40 day prepent series, with an invitation to imagine the end of our own days as an impetus for our own teshuvah.
It wasn’t so long ago, about 6 years, that my beloved friend Deborah Masel, may peace be upon her, stood before our beloved congregation on Kol Nidre, herself in the last stages of cancer, and spoke about “Man on Wire,” which documents the sublime trapeze artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 walk on a wire across the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, every step teetering with the possibility of his own demise, yet simultaneously dancing the most beautiful, graceful dance one could imagine. At that time, she too, Deborah Masel was woman on wire, dancing this dance between worlds, and being ultimately generous to invite us into her dance.
We may not at present have a prognosis and may not imagine our demise in the foreseeable future — thank God — and yet we are all really women and men on wire. The Days of Awe are a mechanism that reminds us of this by reminding us of our createdness. We are created and that means we are not eternal. And we are challenged to use this knowledge of our mortality to propel us towards living the life we want to live and for being the people we want to be.
We do no one a favor by reassuring them and convincing them out of the knowledge of their own mortality. I’ll never forget the devastation I had, as a seven year old, the day I learnt that we die. I buried my head in a pillow and sat with what felt like the darkness and irreparable breach of that knowledge.
And I’ll never forget when my youngest child learnt that we died. It was Shabbat. We were on the couch together. He had been learning in a particular kindergarten about the “Coming of the Messiah” and the Third Temple coming from the sky. Already skeptical about such phantasmagorical ideas, he asked me in earnest ” When we die, do we come back?” I said, “Darling, I really don’t know”. And I don’t. I wanted to take his question seriously. I didn’t want to dismiss it. I didn’t want to give false reassurance.
At that point, we both were teary, and I felt responsible as a mother for giving the bittersweet gift of life, the knowing that giving birth also in some way meant giving death. That is the way of flesh and blood. I said “It can be painful, but with these kinds of things being close helps a little”. And we held each other and cried. And it was with that closeness that I felt both our connectedness and my own existential loneliness and fate as a separate being.
This is a blessing for us all. That we allow ourselves to feel the depth of our pain — and in so doing also the depths of our joy — and that we can do so in company at times — and in holiness — and in gratitude to the Source of All.
And there are times when death doesn’t feel so black. Those are times when my vision adjusts to see things differently. And then I don’t resist death. I see it as part of life. I honor the spirit and I bow to its immortality.
It is not only our own mortality we need to face. The flipside of deep connection in long-term intimate relationship, is that one of us will need to grieve the other. This is the price for letting someone matter to us that much. Many of us may remain guarded to avoid such grief at any cost. And that is really a choice that we make. But if we allow ourselves to want with every cell in our being, to deeply desire — then we need to be able to face this deepest loss as well. In “Passionate Marriage,” David Schnarch says: “The end result of loving a cherished long-term partner is grief few of us are prepared to handle.” This is not limited to partnership. It can be applied to life itself. And allowing ourselves to deeply want life and embrace all that it has to offer we expose ourselves to the “risk” of deep grief.
May we use the knowledge of bodily mortality — generated by the Days of Awe — to propel us towards being the person we want to be and leading the life we want to lead. In Mishnah Yoma 8:9, we learn that God is the mikvah of Israel, purifying the Children of Israel just as the mikvah purifies those who enter it.
Let us be emboldened and strengthened by cleaving to the Divine, by entering the Mikvah that is God.
In the words of Ha Rav Leonard Cohen: “If it be your will…Draw us near…and bind us tight/ All your children here/ In their rags of light”.