Tikkun Magazine

"Jews Praying in the Synagogue on YomKippur" by Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879), Polish-Jewish artist. Oil on canvas. Painted in Vienna, 1878. Credit: Jewish Art, edited by Grace Cohen Grossman.
"Jews Praying in the Synagogue on YomKippur" by Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879), Polish-Jewish artist. Oil on canvas. Painted in Vienna, 1878. Credit: Jewish Art, edited by Grace Cohen Grossman.

Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010

Ever Dying, Never Dead—That’s Life!

by Bradley Shavit Artson

Yom Kippur is coming around the corner. It is almost time once again to don my twenty-seven-year-old wedding kittel (white robe) for this holy day, a day on which we seek to live as though we were angels.

On Yom Kippur we strive to be angels, but we are also reminded of our essential difference from them. According to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim understanding, some angels come into existence when they are assigned a specific mission, and they cease to exist the minute that mission is fulfilled. Other angels exist eternally and never die. That immortality is not our biology, so to compare ourselves to angels is also to reflect on our mortality. The kittel is not only a symbol of purity and joy. It is not only what I wore at my wedding, what I wear at every Passover Seder, and what I have worn for ten years on the holy days: it is also what my remains will be buried in. The kittel is my shroud. It is not coincidental that on Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally wear what will become their shroud. On Yom Kippur we are the walking dead.

We are on that holy day like the dry bones of Ezekiel, knowing that we are frail, knowing that we are finite. It is as if we were given a reprieve. We may be dying, but we are not dead yet! In that sense, the philosopher Hans Jonas teaches that mortality is the gift the living give to the future. The wonder of life, awesome and terrible, is that it renews itself constantly, by sloughing off the old and by embracing the new. Just as we thrill that infants and children refuse to do things the way they have always been done, bringing a relentless energy to their lives and to ours, so too do we know that what is old breaks down and gives way before the young. Life is this cascading process of endless renewal splashing across the millennia toward greater diversity, greater experience, greater relationship, and greater connection.

Midway through the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the congregation directs itself to yizkor (memorial prayers), reciting hazkarat neshamot (a prayer for recalling souls) -- an opportunity to focus on those who have gone before. But Jews do so not from some neutral place, not as though we were looking at some other species. We are ourselves on the way. We humans live as dying creatures. We are aware, to a greater and lesser extent, of the inevitability of our own mortality. Sometimes we push it aside; sometimes it comes crashing in. But as we sit in our sanctuaries, the liturgy reminds us who shall live and who shall die, and who by water, and who by fire. We recall over and again through the words of the machzor: that we have a limited number of times when we will gather together to recite these prayers, that the clocks of our lives are ticking.

Awareness that we are dying should serve to focus our attention on living. It should make what is unimportant less important. We do not have time to waste: not on people we do not enjoy being with and not on doing things that are not compelling or worthy. Our time is brief. Because we all are under the same sentence, it ought to be easier to forgive each other. The one who has wronged us is not some all-powerful divinity who will outlast the ages, but like each of us, a brief and ephemeral flash of life in a sea of roiling darkness. We ought to be able to take what time is at hand and use it to resolve to improve ourselves. And we ought to know that our identity is not simply that of solitary, individual beings. We are part of something larger than ourselves. We are this moment's embodiment of Am Yisrael (the Jewish People), which has lasted through the ages and, if we do our part now, will continue to span eternity.

Consider an odd aspect of Jewish belief and eternity: we pray in the machzor and elsewhere for the coming of the Messiah. We say the Ani Ma'amin -- "I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah." Notice that it does not say, "I believe in the Messiah." What we Jews pledge allegiance to is not belief in the Messiah, but we must believe in the coming of the Messiah. But here's the catch: a Messiah, to be coming, can never arrive. Once the Messiah arrives, he is no longer coming, so at that point one can no longer believe in his coming. But Jewish beliefs are timeless affirmations. God is always One, the Torah was given to Moses -- these beliefs do not become false over time. So if we are to believe in the eternal coming of the Messiah, then the Messiah must be eternally on the way. Because we know that the Messiah is always on the way (hence, never arriving), our job is to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah, doing what it takes to make the world that much more messianic. We must engage in acts of justice and compassion so that even though the arrival is never completed, the work of the Messiah is advanced: a world with somewhat greater justice, somewhat greater compassion, somewhat greater inclusion, somewhat greater welcome.

A Messiah always on the way reminds us of our goals and aspirations, but it is up to us to work for justice.

We can affirm the same paradox about death: during your life you will never be dead. You will always be dying. But within life you are never dead. Perhaps for this reason, people cannot imagine the conditions of their own death. They can conjure the process of dying, but when you imagine yourself being dead, you think of yourself being immobile. You imagine having a mind, having a body, watching your body at your own funeral. But that is not being dead. That is being bored perhaps, maybe even napping, but not being dead. We cannot imagine being dead because we are always on the way; we are always dying. Always dying, never dead -- we are, like the Messiah, always on the way, never arrived. That inescapable limit means that our dying is about living -- with awareness, gratitude, and urgency. Dying is not something separate from the process of living: our lives are a persistent training for death, and our death wafts back to force us to value our life.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic Movement, at the hour of his death turned to his students and said, "Now I finally know the purpose for which I was created." He is not encouraging morbidity, as if life's only significant moment is a deathbed scene. Each and every moment counts. Nonetheless it remains true that whenever I start a novel, I cheat: I flip to the end so I can read the last couple of pages first. I need to know how the story turns out so that I can better attend as it proceeds. In that light the Baal Shem Tov suggests that only when we look back at the completion of our life will we really understand the meaning of everything that transpired previously. It means that we prepare for death by living well: by living in accordance with God's values, and the Torah's, and our own integrity. By living fully in each and every moment.

In Masechet Megillah, the Talmud teaches, "A righteous person who dies is only lost for the generation in which he lived." The sages compare the death to a person who owns and loses a pearl. That pearl remains a pearl even though it is no longer accessible to its owner. So it is with those who have gone before us. We do not have access to their physical presence, but is it possible to say that they are not still with us? Don't you know from your own life, from the people who have touched your life and then have passed on, how valuable and how important their presence remains every day? Can't you think of what grandparents or parents or mentors would have said at every given moment to anything you experienced, to anything you say or do? Their reality is like the pearl. They are not physically accessible to us, but they are very much present in our lives. As we remember their love, their goodness, and their giving, we fortify ourselves: We remember to contribute to this endless cascade of love and devotion that crosses the generations. That is life. We remember their best attributes, and we remember that time is fleeting.

The Baal Shem Tov, again as he was dying, turned to God and said: "I hereby pledge a gift to you of the remaining hours of my life." The Koretzer Rebbe, one of his students, taught that this was a true act of Kiddush Ha-Shem (martyrdom). But we do not have to wait until our deathbeds to offer up the gift of our remaining time. It is never given to us to know whether we have several hours or weeks, or months, or years. But imagine how elevated our lives could be were we to pledge:

This time is no longer my time. It is my gift to God. And I will live my life in such a way that every moment is my gift to God. The way I treat the people I love, I will offer up as a gift. The way I work to build community, I offer God this gift to you. The way I work to strengthen Judaism and the Jewish people, the way I represent my love for Israel and for Zion everywhere I do these, God, I give to you. The way I care for your creation and walk lightly on your beautiful blue-green planet, this, God, I give to you, as a gift. My remaining hours, I give to you.

There is a blessing recorded in Pesikta Rabbati, a midrashic anthology approximately 1,500 years old. It offers words to recite when visiting a cemetery, upon seeing the graves: "Blessed is the One who created you in judgment, who brought death to you in judgment, and who will raise you up in judgment." I would ground that ancient berakhah (blessing) thus:

  • God's love shines in judgment to create us -- finite and precious -- aware at each moment, and especially at this sacred moment, that our time is limited, that we will each join our mothers and fathers, who have gone the way of all earth, that we are eternally dying and learning thereby to live.
  • God's firm judgment imposes upon us the awareness of dying, which spurs us to live our lives in desperate appreciation, numbering and living each day to the full, illumined and inspired by the memories of our dear ones who have already offered up their lives to the eternal renewal of life itself and of the cosmos.
  • Their memory and love raise us up in this world as better people, as more caring and more courageous than we would have been without their deeds of love. We are embraced and fortified by their continuing influence in our hearts and on our actions.
  • We affirm, strong in memory and faith, that God will elevate our lives in this world and will one day raise us up to them, all of us embraced by a love eternal, persistent, and redeeming.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. His latest book is Everyday Torah: Weekly Reflections and Inspirations (McGraw Hill). He recently received his doctorate in philosophy and theology.

Source Citation: Artson, Bradley Shavit. 2010.  Ever Dying, Never Dead—That’s Life! Tikkun 25(5) 22

tags: Judaism, Rethinking Religion, Yom Kippur