Inherent in a rabbi’s job description is to provide pastoral care for those whose lives are at coming to an end. It is a solemn duty to attend to such people and their families, already left vulnerable to the twin elements of fear and grief. While it is never joyful to be with someone as they exhale their final breaths, there is a certain spiritual, empathetic calm that manifests itself, as if this moment is the most important in one’s entire life.
In this last year, such a transcendent moment like this happened to me. She was a friend, a mentor, and a community role model. She gave time and resources to causes that improved and enriched the cultural landscape. But as I knelt down at her deathbed, the near-centenarian whispered something in my ear: “You’re a beautiful man.” It seemed to be a counterintuitive statement. Why would this person, who lived such a long, full life that was rapidly ending, take the time to compliment me? Considering her statement, I realized that it wasn’t about me at all. Rather, she used her dying moments to try to elevate another; a final truly selfless act.
This year has been filled with many selfless acts, acts of courage and kindness in the face of a pernicious virus that affects Black and Latinx populations, among others, with impunity. But as we look at the statistics—21 million people infected, over 200,000 Americans dead and more than 800,000 dead around the world—the number of those who have perished on a global level should give us pause. We must grieve for the dead and pray with the dying. We must do what we can to ensure that the souls who departed from this Earth during the most devastating pandemic in modern times have not left in vain.
Soon, Jews around the world will have the opportunity to reflect on our moral missteps of the previous year and pray for another year of life. The holiday of Yom Kippur, beyond the cultural recognition as a solemn day of fasting, is also about death and a meditation on the transitory nature of our corporeal bodies. Traditionally, Jews wear white on Yom Kippur to emulate a burial shroud. We say our end-of-life confessions; many of us who fast do so to distance ourselves from our daily physical, earthly concerns about sustenance to instead focus on facing and nourishing our souls. In short, it is a day when we prepare to die.
Yet, when Yom Kippur concludes, it ends not with a statement about death but about the affirmation of life. We conclude with the blowing of the shofar (signifying renewal) and we sing “Next year in Jerusalem” (signifying our active hope in a redeeming future of pace). We prepare to die so that we may live a fuller, more meaningful life.
The intersection of Yom Kippur and COVID-19 is torrentially profound: ironically, at this moment when so many of us are taking precautions to safeguard ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities against a deadly disease, we must take the difficult step to prepare spiritually for our own deaths.
Concurrent with the liturgy recited on Yom Kippur, Jews around the world read The Book of Jonah. Why this book for this solemn day? Jonah, by all measures, is a recalcitrant and obstinate man, a prophet who undermines his divine mission to save the city of Nineveh at every turn. But, in Jonah, we also see the most unassuming prophet of the Hebrew Bible, the prophet who holds a mirror to the human condition. With only five (Hebrew) words – Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned – Jonah is able, albeit against his will, to persuade over 120,000 people to repent and radically change their illicit ways. This success is unparalleled among the prophets.
The city of Nineveh, Jonah’s charge, was only saved because of a sort of “herd immunity”: they all listened, they all understood, and they all changed. If some had taken the moral “vaccine” while others did not, the entire city would have been razed under its own hubris. Will we unite to take the vaccine that requires collective cooperation? Will we upend systemic racism from our nation? Will we make the plight of the poor our spiritual priority?
Indeed, one of the many reasons the Book of Jonah is read on The Day of Atonement is to remind us that all of us have the capacity to change and that we must do it together while also honoring our differences to unite for good.
As human civilization is ravaged by COVID, this seismic moment needs to be addressed with humility and compassion. We can never return to normal because normal means returning to a more unjust world. What we will have the opportunity to accomplish, in a new post-pandemic paradigm of global cooperation, is to remold a world built on more kindness, a deeper commitment to social justice, and a renewed vision for human potential that elevates the dignity of all. By performing acts of kindness that both brighten the lives of others and make our own lives more meaningful, we are cherishing and celebrating life in these moments where death is a constant presence.
This Yom Kippur, the Jewish community will continue the delicate dance between life and death as we meditate upon love and hate, grief and joy, fear and strength. We will strike our chests in repentance, not for the wrongs that others have done but because of our own errors. Let’s not bow down to the twin idols of complacency and indifference. We will mourn the loss of life; we will mourn the lost potential of millions. We will prepare for our own deaths. But in the end, we will reaffirm life and the potential for all of us to renew our commitments to build—and rebuild—a beautiful and changed world.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).