Live for Today, Repent for Tomorrow
Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5781
Have you started working on the food for your funeral yet? No? I haven’t either, to be honest. We Jews do enjoy a good shiva spread, don’t we? Some bagels, some rugelach, a babka – maybe even a deli platter – but, truth be told, we don’t usually plan it very far in advance. And we don’t plan it ourselves – our relatives take care of that after we’ve passed.
But if we lived in the remote Alpine town of Grimentz, Switzerland, our preparations for our funeral would look very different. In this town, and others like it, there’s a fascinating custom. When a person gets married, he or she she starts aging a wheel of cheese for his or her funeral. How’s that for advance planning? These cheeses are stored in the cool cellars of people’s homes and are then used as a part of the funeral repast when the owner dies.
Pity the poor people of Grimentz. Don’t they know that a call to Bagel Boss would easily fulfill all of their death-related catering needs? Don’t they know Zabar’s has a website? I guess they’d be out of the delivery range. In all seriousness, why might this odd practice have developed among the people of this community?
Ethnographers who have studied the customs of this remote area have pointed out that the rocky, unforgiving Alpine terrain of towns like Grimentz makes it difficult to farm enough produce to last the whole year. For this reason, it became necessary for people to create nutrient-dense foods that could be preserved and eaten during the region’s long winters – like aged wheels of cheese.
The serving of cheese and other items as a funeral repast also had emotional and spiritual significance. The funeral meal was seen as a kind of parting gift from the deceased to his or her community, providing for the community’s needs and offering an opportunity for comfort and healing after their loss.
I think that that’s actually a beautiful idea – the concept of having the deceased leave a gift of sustenance for his community. But there’s another element of this fascinating practice that I find even more striking – the way in which the people of Grimentz seem to be comfortable talking and thinking about their own eventual passing. The fact that these people can take time at the prime of their lives – in the middle of planning their weddings – to think ahead to their eventual funerals implies that for the people of that community, death is seen as, well, a part of life – it’s woven into the life cycle in a kind of organic and natural way.
I don’t think that the people of Grimentz are necessarily obsessing about death all the time. All evidence indicates that they go about their relatively simple lives – getting married, having children, doing their jobs – but I think that what their cheese ritual implies is that they don’t shy away from talking or thinking about death. They have a kind of calm acceptance of the finite nature of our existence.
This ease in dealing with the thought of death is not something that most Americans – or most Jews – possess. Some of you might have the same experience I did – growing up in a Jewish home in which death was only spoken about in a whisper. I remember this in particular about my grandparents: “Did you hear about Mrs. Schwartz from down the street? The one who lived on the corner? Yes, Mrs. Schwartz. [In a whisper:] She died.” Or – if the adults really wanted to make sure that none of the kinder heard anything death-related, they would say it in Yiddish. Maybe if this happened in your house, it was in Farsi or in Hebrew – but the idea is the same.
And it’s not just that we try to hide the idea of death from our children – it’s something that we adults are not great at dealing with, either. I think that this is part of Jewish culture – and also part of American culture. In America, we like to think that we’re invincible. We like to think that we can rise above our own mortality – that we can fend off death by doing the right exercises, ingesting the right herbs. We go to great lengths to deny that the end will eventually draw near. If we just lift enough weights, wear enough makeup, maybe have a few procedures, we can pretend that we’re not getting older, and if we’re not getting any older, then of course we’re never going to die.
We’re used to going about our lives blissfully unencumbered by thoughts about our own mortality and the finitude of our lives. Well, we were used to that – until this past March.
Six months ago, everything changed. As the coronavirus raged here in New York, and around the globe, we were suddenly introduced to an experience that most of us had never had before: having to think about our own mortality on a daily basis. Back in 2019, who among us could have believed that we would have to consider whether a trip to the grocery store or an appointment at the hair salon was potentially deadly? Who could even imagine such a thing? Yet there we were, all of a sudden, confronted with our mortality and our bodily fragility at every turn, at every moment of the day.
We ordered groceries – were we putting our lives at risk by opening up the boxes from the supermarket? Should we wear gloves? Should we wipe everything down with disinfectant? What about opening the mail? Was that going to kill us? How about a trip to the dentist’s office to get a cavity filled? Could we do that, or would we be putting our lives in danger? All of a sudden, we couldn’t get away from thoughts of our own mortality. And for many of us, it was a shock.
I mentioned before that we Jews are sometimes not so comfortable talking or thinking about death. Our tradition is so life-oriented. Our holy texts tell us that life is sacred, life is the most important goal.
Last Shabbat, in Parashat Nitzavim, in the Book of Deuteronomy, we read about how important life is to us – and to God. Moses tells the people, “I set before you life and death – choose life, so that you and your offspring may live.”
And in Sefer Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, we are told, “For whomever is counted among the living, there is certainty.” This statement has often been translated and quoted as “where there is life, there is hope.”
And it’s not just our Scripture that tells us that life is the ultimate good – our liturgy expresses this idea as well.
We are so obsessed with life that our most fervent hope for those who die is that they eventually come back to life. Three times a day, in our Amidah, we praise God with the words “Blessed are You, God, who brings the dead back to life.” We love life so much that we don’t even accept death as a done deal. We don’t take death for an answer. We believe that life conquers all.
That’s why it comes as such a shock to our systems when we hear the Unetaneh Tokef prayer on Rosh Hashanah and we are confronted with a stark reminder of our own mortality. The very tradition that tells us to choose life is forcing us to face the reality that some of us are going to die in the upcoming year.
We read in the Machzor, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many will pass on and how many will be born, who shall live and who shall die, who will live a long life, and who will come to an untimely end.” Even our tradition, that emphasizes life at every opportunity, has to eventually give us the bad news that life does not last forever.
So what do we do with this knowledge? How do we live with it? How can we go on and live our lives without being paralyzed by the fear of death? How can we possibly experience joy and peace in the New Year if we spend our time knowing that we might die?
There’s a fascinating story in the Talmud that suggests one way that we can continue living our lives in a meaningful way even as we carry the knowledge of our own mortality.
The story is about Rabbi Eliezer, considered one of the greatest of the Sages for his ability to interpret and decide Jewish law. The story relates that Rabbi Eliezer taught that you should repent one day before your death. Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so…one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance.
In other words – you never know when you’re going to die, so you should do teshuvah every day.
To me, this story has two powerful messages, that go hand in hand:
The first is this concept of living your life in a constant state of repentance – a very powerful idea. Because we focus so much on the requirement to do teshuvah during the High Holiday period, we sometimes forget that Judaism really teaches that teshuvah is something we should be doing all the time, not just one month out of the year.
The second thing I take from this story about Rabbi Eliezer is that Rabbi Eliezer is very comfortable with the idea of human mortality – the idea that we’re going to die, and we don’t necessarily know when that’s going to be. If he were alive today, Rabbi Eliezer might get along well with the people of Grimentz, Switzerland. They might meet up to share a plate of cheese, and talk theology.
The thing that’s so amazing about Rabbi Eliezer is that he recognizes that human life is finite and fragile – but instead of taking that knowledge and becoming despondent, Rabbi Eliezer does something remarkable: he takes that knowledge of his mortality and he turns it into something transcendent, something transformative. He uses that knowledge to empower him to do better and to be better. He says to us, across the generations: You’re going to die, at one time or another. It could be in 50 years – it could be tomorrow. Because of that, you need to be your best self – today. Don’t wait.
What would our lives be like if we took Rabbi Eliezer’s advice? How would the coming year be different for us if we lived our lives in a constant state of teshuvah – in an endless quest to better ourselves – every day, not just today? How might that make us more humble, more forgiving?
That’s a tall order – but we, living through these strange, challenging times – are uniquely poised to take Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching to heart. The events of the past six months have forced us to realize that the fact of our mortality is not just a thought we can push away. It’s something we’re faced with every day, whether we like it or not.
The past six months have been a time of much tragedy in our country and in our world. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. As many – if not more – have lost their livelihoods, their homes, their opportunities, because of the financial havoc that this pandemic has caused. All of these are great tragedies.
But I think that the greatest potential tragedy to come out of this terrible pandemic would be if we lived through this difficult time and learned nothing. The greatest tragedy would be if we failed to hear the lessons that this experience has to teach us about how precious life is – if we failed to understand that we show gratitude for our lives not by pretending that death doesn’t exist, but by acknowledging that our lives are finite and using that knowledge to become better people, not some other day, but today.
I hope and pray that the coming months bring you good health and peace. I hope that all of us will be privileged to join together again for Rosh Hashanah next year – whether in person or virtually – God willing, in person – and to reflect together as we hear the words of the Unetaneh Tokef.
And I pray that we will have the courage to take our tradition’s teachings to heart – to face the reality of life – and death, and to respond not with fear, but with strength and determination – to make the most of our time on this earth, for as long as it lasts.
Wishing you a Shanah Tovah – a good and sweet and healthy New Year.