Yom Kippur: our annual encounter with death

According to my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, prayer is a form of “sacred drama.” But unlike when we watch theater, in prayer we are the actors, not the audience. The stories we tell together are sacred because they help us train our emotions to desire what is right and help us think through life’s most important questions.  Through this process, we change who we are for the better.

The power of sacred drama is most evident on Yom Kippur. Last night’s Kol Nidre service was supposed to be the story of our own funerals. Today is our gradual return back through the last moments of our life and into our actual lives by the end of Ne’ilah tonight. This reverse progression from our funerals back to life allows us to consider what we would do if today were actually our last. We emerge from Yom Kippur with renewed purpose and gratitude for the second chance at life that we get each and every year.

Last night, we dressed the part of the deceased. Some of us chose not to wear any garments or shoes of leather – symbols of luxury and human dominion over nature. Some of us wore white – a symbol of purity, like our funeral shroud one day will be. Some of us wrapped ourselves in tallitot, prayer shawls, as we will be when lowered into a casket.

We stood together, reciting the words of Kol Nidre, asking God to absolve us of any obligations – much as we might one day seek absolution from friends and family for all that we were not able to do in our lives. We took the Torahs out and gazed into an empty aron – a word that means both ark and casket. We stared into our own caskets.

What did we see, feel, and think?

If yesterday had actually been our funeral, what would we have lamented?

So let me ask you a question that might seem inappropriate on any other day of the year: What will your funeral be like?

I imagine my own taking place, God willing many, many years from now, at a small, private graveside service. It is November, and the leaves have largely fallen off the trees, but the ground is dry and the air is clear. Some people are crying, but most look downwards, intently, as the rabbi begins the funeral service.

I have a bird’s eye view of the scene, but cannot hear what my friends and family are saying. I want to know what the people closest to me really think. Their words, like their faces, are still a blur to me.

Did I live a good life? Did I help other people? Did I create a meaningful legacy? Was I a good husband, son, brother, and friend? Did I one day become a father? Judged as a whole after its end, was my life worth living?

It is, of course, too soon to tell.  But it is worth asking these questions now.

So I ask you again. What happens at your funeral?

Who is there – and who is not?

What do people say – and what don’t they say?

What did you do with your limited time?

What do you wish you had been able to do?

New York Times columnist, David Brooks, reflects scathingly on his own life in his book, The Road to Character:

I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality.

Though I might critique Brooks’ politics, I have to commend his brave self-assessment and examined approach to life.

Brooks goes on to describe two kinds of virtues: “resume virtues,” which make you popular or help you earn money, and “eulogy virtues,” which are the traits people praise when you aren’t around – and when you’re ultimately gone.

I write a lot of eulogies as a rabbi, and I understand what he means. Even when speaking of a prominent or powerful person, the traits that matter most are often kindness, humility, selflessness, or love. When speaking of the most humble, anonymous person, loved ones extol those same virtues, often in far more superlative terms.

Our society praises us for what’s on our resumes. It praises us for our fancy titles, offices, and affiliations. But our tradition, our heritage, our humanity calls us to look beyond anything we could possibly put on paper, to the relationships we foster, values we espouse, and love we bring into the world.

Leo Tolstoy writes hauntingly in The Death of Ivan Ilyich about the recently deceased protagonist: “His life was most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Tolstoy tells the story of an ordinary man’s life and death to highlight the meaninglessness of a life without relationships or the pursuit of higher ideals.

Today is our day to confront the terror of a meaningless life and the angst of wasted opportunities. Today, our sacred hours are in the full existentialist sense a boundary experience. They push us to the emotional edge – and force us to reevaluate the way we live our lives.

It is difficult, heady, overwhelming work. Yet the presence of community and comfort of knowing that others are working on themselves alongside us elevates our effort and gives us strength.

In some ways, “beginning with the end in mind” is incredibly liberating. Our rabbinic sages spend a great deal of time discussing what will be most important after we die – not out of morbid interest, but in order to guide how we choose to live today.

Tractate Shabbat 31a of the Babylonian Talmud notes:

After departing from this world, when a person is brought to judgment, for the life he lived in this world, they say to him in the order of that verse: Did you conduct business faithfully? Did you designate times for Torah study? Did you engage in procreation? Did you await salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom…? Nevertheless, if the fear of the Lord is his treasure, yes he is worthy, and if not, none of these accomplishments have any value.

For those of us who grapple with belief in God. For those of us who do not await salvation, but work tirelessly for justice. For those of us without children. For those of us who genuinely do not know what happens when we die. These words might feel remote.

But let us review them once again. For they contain a wealth of wisdom that explains so much of what is meritorious in our tradition – if only we translate some of the ancient concepts into newer language.

Do you conduct your business honestly and with care for everyone you work with?

Do you study ethics – and, yes, do you study Torah?

Do you actively try to build a meaningful legacy?

Do you maintain hope for the future, in spite of all the world’s ills?

Do you have meaningful conversations with people who help you discern what really matters?

If you do not believe in something greater than yourself, then you are not living well.

God is optional in Judaism. Ethical living is not. In our tradition, action inspires faith – not the other way around. When we live well and cultivate our eulogy virtues, and make the world a better place – perhaps we will find a renewed sense of spiritual wonder.

Today, we take a step back from our funerals last night to the liminal state that many people experience on the border between life and death. We remain disconnected from the earthly nature of life. We act as spiritual beings, dissociating from the physical realm.

We don’t eat.

We don’t drink.

We don’t have sex.

We don’t engage in worldly joys or pay attention to our material possessions.

So let me ask you another question, as we all imagine what it would be like to approach death today. What are you waiting to share on your deathbed?

Most people have preconceived notions of what happens on our deathbeds.  We imagine resolutions of conflict, pronouncements of truth, and tearful reconciliations with estranged relatives.  It is seen as the culmination of a life, the time we get to reflect and finally say what we have to say.  Deathbeds are supposed to be momentous, not only because of their intrinsic pain and mystery, but as moments of profound interchange.

Most of the time, they aren’t.

As a rabbi, and previously as a chaplaincy intern, I have sat at hundreds of deathbeds.  I’ve watched dozens of people take their last breaths.  I have seldom seen a deathbed experience like the ones we read about in literature or see in the movies. Those profound moments happen very rarely. For the most part, people on their deathbeds are too consumed with the very last life cycle event to connect deeply with those they are leaving behind.

Our Talmudic sages knew this too. This is why we hear of the death of one of the greatest rabbis in history, Yehuda HaNasi.

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was on his deathbed. His beloved students gathered around him. They were so filled with anticipatory grief that they denied the reality of his condition. They declared a fast and prayed with all of their hearts that God not let him die. His illness was too severe for recovery, but the strength of their prayer was such that it prevented him from dying.  He was caught in between.

Helpless, Yehuda HaNasi’s maidservant went up to the roof to get away from the scene around his deathbed. She felt that her beloved employer was being pulled in opposite directions and torn asunder. She could see how much Yehuda HaNasi was suffering and could not bear to see him in such physical and emotional pain. But his students loved him so much that they would not let him go – and they prayed and prayed for his continued life.

Finally, the maidservant took and threw a large earthenware jug from the roof, shattering it on the street below. The students all looked up to see what had made the noise, ceasing their prayer for just a single moment. When their prayers stopped and their attention was elsewhere, Yehuda HaNasi finally died.

This Talmudic story reflects the ways we struggle with the idea of losing a loved one. We are at once the maidservant and the disciples. We hope or pray that our loved ones find release from pain, and yet struggle with the idea of their death, because of how much we love and need them – or at least have come to expect their presence. Being at someone’s side as they near their death is wholly overwhelming – and overwhelmingly holy.

Today, we are also Yehuda HaNasi. Everyone has a clear part in this story – except for Yehuda HaNasi himself. The central figure of the tale, and arguably the most brilliant rabbinic scholar in history, one who had such wise words at so many moments, does not say anything at all. Perhaps he could not speak, or perhaps he did not know what to say.

Even when meaningful conversations do take place on one’s deathbed, they often do not meet expectations or provide the perspective on life for which we hoped.

This past year, I saw a family member leave distraught after being present for a deathbed conversation. I assumed incorrectly that he was moved by grief. Instead, he was hurt that his loved one hadn’t said anything of greater substance.

As he put it, “Really? That’s it? Nothing life-changing?”

He and his loved one connected more than most are able to when death is so close – but still had much left to say to each other. Deathbed conversations of substance are a rare blessing, not a reasonable expectation.

A rabbinic syllogism sums it up beautifully.

“‘[You should] Repent one day before your death….’”

“‘Does one know the day of one’s death?’”

“‘That is all the more reason to repent today, lest one dies tomorrow. Therefore, all one’s days shall be filled with repentance.’”

Many people die with regrets. None of us wants to be among them.  So today you should think of what you would like to say on your deathbed – a relationship you would affirm, forgiveness you would seek, a kernel of wisdom you would share – and do it today instead.

In the works of William Shakespeare, the difference between a comedy, a tragedy, and a problem play is timing. It is only an accident of timing that prevents Much Ado About Nothing from turning into Romeo and Juliet.

And so it is in the story of our lives.

But today we get a miraculous second chance.  Today, we have the chance to look back on our lives as if they were ending and alter the trajectory of our stories.  Today, we can turn tragedy into comedy. Today, we can look death in the face – and then go forth tonight to live lives of greater meaning. Today is a gift our tradition gives us every year – the gift of a second chance.

When we speak of a spiritually nourishing or rejuvenating Yom Kippur, we do not mean one that is free of hunger or want. We mean one that enables us to look ahead to our funerals and our deathbeds and answer these questions honestly – while we still have time left.

There is a moving parable in our High Holy Day Machzor about Rabbi Israel Salanter, an early 19th Century Rabbi who fomented a major ethical revival. Late one evening, he passed the home of the shoemaker. Despite the hour, the shoemaker was still mending shoes by the light of a fading candle.

“Why are you still working?” the Rabbi asked. “The candle is almost out.”

The shoemaker replied: “As long as it is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and mend.”

The shoemaker’s wisdom is the central lesson of today. As long as the candle is still burning, as long as we are still alive and our minds are still alert, “it is still possible to accomplish and mend.”

The gift of Yom Kippur is the opportunity to mend our lives and relationships while the candle still burns brightly. May we use these hours, in this sacred drama, with sacred purpose. May we return to our lives this evening with renewed clarity of vision and determination to live them righteously and with meaning.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Stanton is Spiritual co-Leader of East End Temple in Manhattan. He previously served as an Assistant Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College. He was a Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Interreligious Studies and one of six finalists globally for the $100,000 Coexist Prize. His articles only represent his own personal views.
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