In the end, when we return to our maker, our opportunity is over and done:
- The last thoughts have been pondered,
- The last feelings felt,
- The last words spoken,
- The last song sung,
- The last deeds done,
- And finally, the last kiss goodnight.
All human beings must eventually confront their mortality. And as much as we may think that we can do anything and will live forever when we are at the ripe age of 18, there comes a time for all of us, when we know that we are all given a limited time here on earth, and that the Angel of Death doesn’t forget anyone.
Sounds a little morbid, but it’s a serious and most human of topics, which is fundamental to not only how we live our lives, but also what our everlasting existence looks like afterward. In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, we read (Deuteronomy 30:15):
See, I have placed before you today, life and good, and death and evil.
It seems so intuitive that if we do good, then we merit life, but if we do evil, then we get slaughtered. However, like many of you, I have always understood from Judaism that this life was just “a corridor” to the real world, the world to come. Moreover, everything that we do here is just so we can merit to bask in the holy light of Hashem after we die. So, the question is: Why is death associated with evil? Aren’t our lives really so we can do the right things now, in order that we can merit a “good death” to see the “light at the end of the tunnel” and reach G-d in Heaven?
Certainly, every human being has the desire to live and goes about fighting for life. It’s part of our genetic makeup and our very survival instinct. Yet, we all know that the cycle of life brings us from the beginnings of infancy to growth, the maturity of adulthood, then decline, old age and ultimately death itself. Truly, we all know the end from the very beginning, and with that we can achieve a greater awareness that what’s good in living isn’t the materialism and chasing the next “high,” but rather the ability to choose to do good and to be on a higher spiritual plane.
Ultimately, this ability to live and choose is what differentiates human beings from all other animals: only man is created in G-d’s “own image” (Genesis 1:27) and G-d only breathed into man “the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). Thus, like G-d, only man, from all other creatures, is truly “alive” in being able to choose good from evil. Being alive means that we can set aside our narcissist tendencies and our self-gratification in order to instead work to do good by others and this world. In stark contrast to this, in death, the choice and the ability to do good is forever gone. Our bodies return to dust, and our souls go back to G-d. The evil of death is only that G-d has terminated our chance to continue to live and further refine ourselves. As they say, “the game is over!”
Life is choice and having control over how we respond to life’s circumstances. Death is simply observing and being. Therefore, even if we merit being in the Divine presence in the afterlife, we still can’t actively help anyone, like those we love, any longer. This is why we want to merit life where we can continue to work on ourselves and help others. Thus, despite all the pain and suffering associated with life, it is more than offset by the opportunity to learn, grow, and transform our very essence in a purification process of our souls. This week, at Rosh Hashanah, there is no more appropriate time to recognize this purpose of life and focus on continuing our paths toward self-improvement and tikkun olam. This year let us repent, pray, and be charitable towards a New Year full of G-d’s mercy and blessings, of life and not death, to have more time to live, do good, and earn our share in the eventual afterlife where we will be in the radiant, holy glow of our Father who art in Heaven.