Facing death to embrace life

In my time as a synagogue rabbi, there were rare occurrences when I would receive an unusual visitor on Shabbat. In order to be in touch with me about the passing of a congregant, the local funeral home would send a non-Jew to my home. As soon as I saw them walking towards my door, I inevitably felt a sinking feeling in my stomach, and started to guess who may have died. Nothing quite prepares us for death and every death comes as a shock. Knowing that these moments were difficult for me, my wife would often attempt to ease the tension by joking that “Death is knocking at the door”.

Our attitude towards death is complex, and we rarely talk about it. In an essay written just after the outbreak of World War One, Sigmund Freud claims that because of the war, society can no longer ignore death’s presence.[1] He makes several astute observations regarding the way we approach death. First, he acknowledges that deep down in our unconscious death terrifies us.  In fact, this fear is so unbearable that we spend most of our life repressing it and acting as if we will live forever. As a result, we use humor to deflect our discomfort with death and find it shocking if young children speak about death in a direct manner. When we hear that someone has died, our immediate response is to ask what was the cause. Somehow, we seem to think that if we know the reason, death is more comprehensible for us.

Freud, of course, was not the first to recognize our discomfort with death. The midrash states that (Tanchuma Kedoshim 8) “If God had not hidden the death from the hearts of human beings, we would never build or plant and we would simply say, “Tomorrow I will die so why should I struggle only for the benefit of others?”

However, despite all our attempts to banish the idea of death to the dark corners of our psyche, there are times when death must be acknowledged. On Yom Kippur, we abstain from eating or drinking and other life affirming activities while wearing the same white robes that we will be buried in.[2]

It is the one day of the year when we have no choice but to come face to face with our own mortality. None of us will live forever and when we die, we will stand before the heavenly court to account for the way that we have lived our lives.[3] Yom Kippur presents us with the opportunity to confront our eventual death and in doing so, take responsibility for our lives.

There is, in fact, is a longstanding Jewish tradition of imagining the day of one’s death in order to inspire one to teshuva. In the Talmud (Berachot 5a), Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish says: “A person should always incite the yetzer tov, one’s good desires, to fight against the yetzer hara, one’s evil impulse… If one overcomes their yetzer hara then all is good, but if one feels the yetzer hara winning one should busy oneself with the study of torah…. If this is successful than good, but if not, one should imagine the day of one’s death.”

Imagining the day of one’s death was praised as an important spiritual practice by many great rabbis.[4] Some even offered detailed instructions to be used as a guided meditation. The rabbis understood that imagining our own death arouses within us a profound sense of humility and self-reflection. We are reminded that despite all our efforts, we are all nothing more than “dust and ashes” and that our bodies will return to the ground once more after our soul departs. When we truly stare death in the face, there is no lying to ourselves. The countless pursuits that seemed so critical when we are younger will ultimately pale in importance. We will inevitably look back on our lives and feel regret for what we have done and for what we have not done. Knowing that the heavenly court will judge us, we are filled with fear as we remember the countless times we failed to live up to our own values expectations.

Imagining the day of our death is not intended to bring on sadness or depression.  It is a tool that use sparingly to help bring about the chesbon hanefesh, the self-reflection that is essential for teshuva.[5] We turn to it as a weapon of last resort on Yom Kippur when judgement hangs in the balance.

Fasting and wearing a white robe is not the only way we acknowledge death on Yom Kippur. Despite our best efforts to imagine our death, Freud understood that truly internalizing our own mortality is a near impossible task. Even when we try to imagine our passing, we still picture what the world will be like with us gone. We imagine our loved ones mourning and eventually moving on with their lives. The problem with this, according to Freud, is that “we are in fact still present as spectators.” We still imagine ourselves as present in some way after our death even though this will no longer be the case. Freud argues that the only way we can truly know death is through the loss of a loved one.  He explains that after their death we feel a “complete collapse when death has struck down someone whom we love- a parent or a partner in marriage, a brother or sister, a child or close friend. Our hopes, our desires and our pleasures lie in the grave with him [them]. We will not be consoled, we will not fill the lost one’s place.”

It is only through the death of a loved one that we can appreciate the finality of death and the sense of absence that accompanies it. When we lose a loved one, we also lose a piece of ourselves and this is a feeling unlike any other. We rent a hole in our clothes to match the hole that we feel in our heart. Considering this, it seems appropriate that Yizkor was originally only recited on Yom Kippur, a day when we struggle to face our own death through remembering the deaths of our loved ones. This ritual must be viewed as a significant component of the teshuvah process.

In one of the oldest sources about Yizkor dating back to the Medieval period, the Kol Bo (Siman 70), writes: “There are those that have the custom to remember the dead on Yom Kippur because remembering the dead breaks the heart and causes the will to submit.” It is not easy to call to mind the loved ones whom we have lost, many taken from us far too soon. But it does remind us that death awaits us all.

As much as Yom Kippur may be a day in which we confront death, it is ultimately for the purpose of embracing life. Other religious traditions tend to emphasize the rewards awaiting the one who dies and for many, this is their appeal. Such an approach enables adherents to cope with their fear of death, but it is not the Jewish way. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, passionately argued that Judaism is a religion dedicated to this world. In Halakhic Man (p. 31), he writes: “Many religions view the phenomenon of death as a positive spectacle… Death is seen as a window filled with light open to an exalted supernal realm. Judaism, however, proclaims that coming into contact with the dead precipitates defilement, Judaism abhors death… [Death] (It) bids one to choose life and sanctify it. Authentic Judaism as reflected in halakhic thought sees in death a terrifying contradiction to the whole of religious life.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik understood that a person who has died can neither praise God nor perform the commandments. The rabbis proclaimed in Pirkei Avot (4:17), “Better is one hour of torah and mitzvoth in this world than the whole life in the world to come”.  The purpose of our lives is to bring holiness into the world, a task that cannot be done once we have passed from it. God did not give the Torah to angels who lived in the heavens but rather to human beings who would be able to bring it down to earth. The ideal Halakhic Man sees death as the enemy because he recognizes that it is the adversary of holiness.

Therefore, we embrace our death on Yom Kippur not to turn away from the world but to recognize its inestimable value. Most of our days are spent ignoring the indescribable beauty of God’s creation and the unbelievable potential of our lives. Facing our mortality teaches us to make the most of each day and enables us to recognize God’s presence in each moment. Through this real teshuvah is made possible for us.

Struggling with death can be the most daunting and important spiritual task we will ever face. It is often the case that I turn to literature explore my deepest struggles, and Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead powerfully captures exactly what is at stake when we must confront our own death. The book is a fictional autobiography of the Reverend John Ames, the elderly pastor of the small, secluded town of Gilead, Iowa. He is dying of a heart condition, and explains that he is writing an account of his life for his seven-year-old son, who will have few memories of him when he dies. Much of Gilead is a meditation on what it means to die when we know that those we love will live on without us.

I personally find the book so compelling because I identify deeply with Reverend Ames. He and I both struggled to shepherd our flocks despite knowing that we will make many mistakes along the way. We do our best to inspire others to a life of God even though we know that the moments of true success are few and far between. However, what haunts me the most from the book is that I too have young children. If I were to die they would be left with few memories of their father, and I often ask myself what would be my legacy to them.

Throughout the book, Reverand Ames repeatedly attempts to convey to his son the awareness that the world God has given us is so beautiful and so ready to be filled with holiness if only we were just able to recognize it. Death may be a terrible thing, but it also enables Reverand Ames and each one of us to recognize the value and meaning of life.

In the closing pages of the novel, Reverend Ames offers one final insight to his son. He reflects on a sermon he gave many years before and explains how, at the end of his life, he now understands it in a different way.

It seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance- for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light… I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only who could have the courage to see it. [6]

On Yom Kippur, we must face our deaths. May it inspire us to teshuva and let us use the opportunity to be reminded of the amazing gift of life that God has given us.

[1] Our Attitude Towards Death, Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud.

[2] Rema, 610:4 and discussion in Darchei Moshe 610:5.

[3] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:2.

[4] Shlah, Rebbi Nachman of Breslov, and the Piasetzna Rebbe.

[5] Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov, Igra D’Kalah 1:130a

[6] Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, p. 245.

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff recently made aliyah and moved with his family to Jerusalem. He is the director of the English speaking program at Bina L'Itim, a project of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and an educator for the Hartman Institute. For nearly a decade, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Syagogue in Cleveland, OH. He is an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He has a passion for using Jewish texts and ideas along with contemporary thought to address important issues of the day.
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