Preparing to Die, Learning to Live

By: Dr. Elliott Malamet |

  Dear Sir,

    Thank you for your recent inquiry regarding the upcoming High Holidays. You want to know why it is that people who have palpably little Jewish involvement for the other 362 days of the calendar bother to attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On the other hand you are puzzled by Jewish tradition, which places so much emphasis on these three days, as though God is unavailable on a cold despairing midnight in March. Sir, your questions are good ones.   

    You have searched for answers in listening to your rabbi's High Holiday sermons. They will fittingly allude to repentance, to self-improvement, to Jewish values and Jewish unity. They may also delve into support for Israel or possibly a somewhat hip reference to the news of the day with a Jewish hook. What you have heard much less about are the "ghostlier demarcations," the bare night of death.         

    And Rosh Hashanah is, on some fundamental level, about remembering that we are going to die. That real life is a transient dream. That one morning at four a.m. you will wake up in the darkness, listen to the breathing of those you love, and realize "I—this body, husband/wife, son/daughter, friend, teacher, this laugh, this pride, this dreaming, this preening for others, this skin, this scent, this secret lust, this unconquered spirit, this shifting heart, this semblance of power, this face, this wallet stuffed with cards of identity and affluence, this seat at the dinner table—will all vanish." We do not like to talk about this because as a culture we shun feelings of intensity. We substitute ennui for grief, distraction for joy, religious posturing for an open and sharing quest for enlightenment. 

   But death consciousness should not serve as a reason for paralysing feelings of depression. Quite the opposite—in the great moments of religious history, it formed the powerful beginning of life change. It is what allowed the Buddha to break free of stultifying social expectations and seek real inner understanding. And it is the knowledge of our own mortality that propels the Jew on the Days of Awe to move beyond the harrowing cage of daily calculations, the utterly futile preoccupation with temporal successes and approval, and begin to hunger for the highest things. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great ethicist of the 19th century, writes that "our entire life is God's mercy; by miracles we stand—but miracles may not happen every day." On Yom Kippur, death is not just ruminated upon but enacted through the prohibitions against eating, drinking, bathing, sexual relations. The breeze of death, felt close to the skin, can shock us into appreciating the miracle that is life.

    Of course, this is hardly an answer to your dilemmas. Why do people attend shul? Some want to, some have to, some feel compelled to, some do it for others, some pay homage to the past, some throw darts at the future. But I suspect that both for the fastidiously observant and even for the Jewishly unconcerned, it is the faint—and growing ever fainter—whiff of gravity in the air that proves compelling in a way that is hard to fathom rationally. Since, as Philip Larkin beautifully writes, "someone will be forever surprising/a hunger in himself to be more serious/And gravitating with it to this ground."  

     Yours truly,