I’ve always had a rather rocky relationship with the Jewish High Holidays ever since I can remember. I have never been on board with the image that the liturgy provoked within me of an autocratic G-d who would decide when and how I would die. And I found it particularly offensive that I could get Him to reverse His decree if I repented and asked Him over and over for forgiveness during the course of so very many hours in synagogue.
At the same time, a Jewishly well-educated individual, I could not turn my back on what my parents taught me was a nonnegotiable obligation to go to synagogue during these holidays. So, I looked for ways to engage with aspects of the liturgy that would resonate with me and trigger some meaningful contemplation.
Sometimes, I would focus on how little we know about what will happen tomorrow and the days after. I tried to get comfortable with uncertainty, as unsettling as that may be for me. Sometimes, I would focus on the need to live each day with humility—a theme that runs through many of the High Holiday prayers.
One prayer that always captures my attention is the medieval liturgical poem that speaks of humanity as clay in in the hands of a potter or stone in the hands of a cutter or a rudder in the hands of a sailor.
The words are quite severe. Take, for example, this stanza:
“Like the stone in the hand of the cutter,
He grasps it at will and smashes it at will.
So are we in Your hand, O Source of life and death.”
Clearly, the poem strives to steer us away from arrogance and towards humility, while reminding us of our mortality and our lack of control over it.
For the longest time, I would say to myself, “I can’t start feeling old yet or worry about death because, hey, I could live into my 90s—and then I would be feeling old and worrying about my mortality for possibly 30 years. That’s way too long. But, at the risk of slipping onto “the dark side,” I find myself needing to admit that there is a good chance I am clearly ensconced in the last quarter of my life. While I am extremely fortunate to suffer from only rather minor ailments, many of my peers are now dealing with debilitating chronic illnesses. Putting on rosier glasses, I could say that with all the potential diseases we could contract, it’s amazing how any of us stay healthy for as long as we do. But this High Holiday season I can’t help but zero in on thoughts of life’s fragility and my own mortality.
Initially, my reaction was “How surreal!” And then, “Simply frightening!” I remember one of my favorite mentors in Hadassah telling me that one of the hardest things about getting older is seeing that look in colleagues’ eyes that you are no longer the person you used to be. “I want to avoid that at all costs,” she would say. I don’t think I’ve seen that look in people’s eyes yet, but who knows? Maybe I missed it. In any case, the cycle of life is such that we do grow older and change and, like it or not, we must find peace with our limitations and the person we now see in the mirror.
I’m reminded of a movie I once saw about a professor who was getting ready to go to his retirement party. He was clearly ill at ease. And, as he looked into the mirror, I remember him saying with a confused look on this face, “I don’t know who that guy is in that mirror, because, in my head, I’m still 18.”
Whatever changes we undergo, I do believe we typically remain the same person at our core—with the same values and sense of responsibility toward other people. I can’t imagine severing my bond with Israel as a partner in strengthening the Jewish state or my 45-year journey with Hadassah, which has enabled me to achieve that mission. As the late Past National Hadassah President June Walker used to say, “Hadassah is the address to fulfill yourself as an American Jewish woman.”
Rather than drowning in fear of what is to come, I’ve decided to drill down a bit and ask myself, instead, “What can I be doing that I am not doing?” “Do I have my priorities straight for this stage of my life?” “Are the specific things I am doing still resonating as impactful and meaningful to me?”
It occurs to me, too, that we are mirrors for the special people in our life, whatever their age. And perhaps one of the most important things we can do for them is to notice and reinforce their strengths, their passionate devotion to their priorities, and the love and values that they continually transmit to the next generation. When I focus on these things, there is no need to dwell on my mortality or how many years I have left.
As Rabbi Nicole Auerbach of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue expressed in a recent pre-High Holiday sermon, “We relinquish our illusion of control and hand it back to G-d.” But while we recognize the limits of our power, she explained, we also acknowledge our power. We affirm our ability to make changes in our lives, to choose meaningful activities and pastimes.
Whatever the number of years we’ve already spent on this earth, the words of my all-time favorite singer/songwriter Phil Ochs poignantly capture our mandate. They appear in his song When I’m Gone. Here are the lines that most profoundly enter my soul.
“Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone.
So, I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone.
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone.
So, I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”
I look forward to seeing what I figure out to add into my life while I’m still here. The thought of a myriad of possibilities is a tad intimidating, but also empowering!