“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. …. Who shall live and who shall die. …. But teshuva (repentance, return), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (righteousness, charity) may avert the severity of the decree.”
The words of this frightening liturgical poem, Unetaneh Tokef, were sung yesterday by countless (mostly Ashkenazi) Jews around the world as part of the Yom Kippur prayer service. The idea that our fates are sealed might feel troubling, and yet the idea that repentance, prayer, or charity can change the severity of that fate may be even more disturbing. But what if we understand the ideas contained in this poem as ideas to help us live well in the face of mortality? Our fate IS sealed – we are all mortal. But teshuva – returning, each year, each day, each moment, to our center, to who we want to be, can lessen the fear felt in the realization that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Tefillah – praying, by expressing gratitude, by sharing the petitions of our hearts, and by offering words of praise – prayer too can soften the harsh reality that we do not know how long we will live. Tzedakah – righteous ways, or giving charity, remembering the rabbinic adage that even those who survive on charity are obligated to give to those less fortunate – this can help reduce the worry that we have no say in our fate. Whether we believe in the idea that our fate is sealed or we believe that we have power over our fate, it remains the fact that our time on this earth will eventually come to an end. How we live our lives while we are here is what matters most.
Too many families end up in crisis because of our inability to talk about these kinds of realities – the reality that death will come. We’re scared to acknowledge this reality, we don’t know how to talk about it, when to talk about it, where to talk about it. But why we should talk about it – that’s perhaps the place to start. Talking about death and dying enables us to confront the feelings of fear. Doing so repeatedly can help to lessen the severity of the fear and the preference to avoid the topic altogether. What might it look like if we had regular check-ins with those closest to us about the fact of our mortality? It might normalize the task, making it just something we do, not something we don’t do because we’re afraid.
This time of year, between Yom Kippur, yesterday’s annual dress rehearsal for death, and Sukkot, next week’s harvest holiday in which we reflect on the fragility of life, it is socially acceptable to talk about death moreso than at any other time of year. Yesterday, we recited Yizkor, the prayer of remembrance. We have the opportunity to recite Yizkor four times a year – on Yom Kippur, and on each of the three pilgrimage holidays – Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, to remember the lives of those we loved, and to remember that life is finite. So too, we remember the dead on the anniversary of their death – the yahrtzeit – by lighting a candle, by reciting kaddish, and maybe even by eating their favorite foods (well, that’s my family’s practice.) The Jewish calendar readily offers us the gift of regular check ins with mortality, most especially through the ways in which we remember those who have died.
How can the greater ease with which we remember the dead teach us about the importance of considering our own mortality? Does it help to think how we might be remembered– or how we want to be remembered? If it does, then how are we living our lives now in the ways we want to be remembered?
Jewish practice offers us ways in which we can contemplate our mortality on the regular – to remember that we are mortal, in order to live more deeply the lives we are given. May the themes of the high holidays reverberate beyond the joy with which we break the fast. And by bringing this work into our lives with greater frequency, may we avert the severity of the fear that too often stops us from talking about death, and about life.