“YOU SHOULD REPENT THE DAY BEFORE YOU DIE!” These are the words Rabbi Eliezer told his students. They looked at him with puzzlement on their faces and said, “But we don’t know on which day we will die. And to that the Rabbi replied, “All the more reason you should repent today, lest you die tomorrow.”
Judaism teaches that we are expected to repent, to make up for the offenses we have committed. But that is easier said than done. It is hard to apologize. It is hard to admit we were wrong. So we put it off. We often think, well I’ll have time to do that later. It is for this reason that the rabbis saw great wisdom in creating the customs and traditions of the High Holy Days, including the Vidui, the confessional prayers, which we will read tomorrow. We are reminded that even if we are young, we should not delay the act of asking forgiveness.
No matter what our age, the High Holy Days force us to face our mortality. The Unetaneh Tokef Prayer, which we recite at the morning services for the High Holy Days, reminds us, in not so gentle a way, that our lives are on the line, as we read, “How many shall pass on…who shall live and who shall die.” As we recite these words each High Holy Days, we pray that we will not be the ones fulfilling the second part of that phrase.”
Yet, do we want to live forever? In his book, “When I am 164,”writer David Ewing Duncan talks about the advances of science that could potentially increase our live expectancy significantly. In his lectures around the country he posed this question to the audience: “How long do you want to live?” and gave them these options:
· 80 years, currently the average life span in the West;
· 120 years, close to the maximum anyone has lived;
· 150 years, which would require a biotech breakthrough;
The results are very interesting. . .
. . . the majority, about 60 percent, opted for a life span of 80 years. (I am assuming this was a young crowd.) Another 30 percent chose 120 years, about 10 percent chose 150 years. Less than 1 percent embraced the idea that people should avoid death altogether.
The reasons given for not wanting to live very long or forever included everything from boredom and the cost of paying for a longer life, to the impact of so many extra people on natural resources and the environment. Some worried that millions of healthy centenarians would still work and govern, leaving our grandchildren and great-grandchildren without the jobs and opportunities that is the normal progression of things as older people retire.
No one wants to die, yet no one wants to live forever.
Death does play an important role in our society. And on a personal level, the knowledge that one day we will die, helps us to seek out and strive for our individual purpose. Of all the living creatures of the world, only humans are aware of our mortality. This awareness puts a limit on the number of days we have to accomplish our goals. If we had an infinite amount of time in the world, we would always put off accomplishing things until later. We would not be driven to attain anything. Knowing that our days are limited can inspire us to reach for greatness before our time runs out.
Almost a full year has passed since the founder of Apple Computers, Steve Jobs, passed on. He died young at the age of 56, yet accomplished more in his short lifetime, than many people who live well into their nineties do. It is almost as if he knew deep down, even before he received his cancer diagnosis, that his lifetime on earth would be short. He was never content to rest after revealing a new and great product at the annual conference. Even before it hit the shelves, he was busy working on the next great device that we would realize we needed.
In 2005, after his discovered he had pancreatic cancer, he gave a Commencement Address for Stanford University and he told the students,
“When I was 17 I read a quote that went something like “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important thing I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life, because almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
On Yom Kippur, by envisioning the possibility of our own death, we are forced to ask the important questions about what we have done with our life so far, what we need to repair, and what new direction we should go in. We are challenged to evaluate whether or not we are living up to our fullest potential. The High Holy Days remind us that we should live our lives in such a way that when we do get to that final day of our lives, we will be proud of our lives, and we will have no regrets.
Bonnie Ware was a hospice care-giver. In her book, “The Top Five Regrets of The Dying,” she wrote about her experiences and discussions with dying patients during the last weeks of their lives. Here are some of the thoughts they shared with her on their deathbeds:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
How often do we move our lives in the direction that others want us to go. This Yom Kippur, we should ask ourselves, “Am I living the life I was meant to live, or am I living it according to someone else’s expectations? What can I do to take ownership of my life.”
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
As you know, no one regrets having spent too much time with their family, as they lie on their deathbed. Yes, work is important for many reasons. It pays the bills and provides extras. It can be a source of satisfaction and fulfillment. It can give you a sense of accomplishment and purpose. But if that is all you do, something is lacking. Family and friends should not suffer at the expense of being married to your work. For what good are the riches you obtain as a result of working, if you have no one to share them with?
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Some of her patients reported that they kept quiet just to have peace in the family. This IS an important ideal in Judaism. There is an expression called, “Shalom Bayit,” which teaches the importance of maintaining “peace in the house.” But this doesn’t mean you need to keep your feelings locked in. Instead you can learn ways to express your feelings in a way that is non-threatening to your loved ones, but still enables you to let out what you are feeling inside.
4. I wish I had let myself be happier.
Happiness is a choice. You can’t always change what happens in your life but you can change how you perceive it. It is easier to get stuck in the mindset of old patterns and habits which cause you to look for the worse in a person or a situation rather than the best. It is easy to always yearn for what you can’t have, rather than enjoy what you do have. ALS sufferer Morrie Schwartz, of Tuesdays with Morrie, said it beautifully. “Dying is one thing to be sad over. Living an unhappy life is something else. So many people are unhappy.” When I visited my parents in south Florida there was a restaurant I loved to go to. The food was OK, but nothing out of the ordinary. I didn’t go for the meals they served. What I loved was what greeted you on the table as you sat down. Instead of bread, there was a basket of cake with a sign that read, “Life is short, eat desert first.” Now that’s a way to let yourself be happy.
Here are other regrets that people have:
· Not appreciating and enjoying the ones you love even if you spend time with them. Being in the same room or the same house is not enough.
· Holding a grudge and never forgiving someone you care about. I have been at too many funerals where the grudges people have against the deceased remain in limbo forever.
· Not making a difference in other people’s lives. It is important to lead a life worth living, but it is so much more powerful and rewarding to use your gifts and talents to help others improve their lives.
· Failing because you were scared to fail. Failure is not a sin. Failure is not bad or wrong. It is necessary. With time and maturity, you can look back on the mistakes you made as having been opportunities to learn and grow.
Hopefully, and fortunately, most of us here do not have a fatal diagnosis. Do we need to wait then, until we have a terminal illness to be aware of how we can best live our lives?
Rabbi Benjamin Blech shares this story:
Every year, as the High Holy Days approach, I remember the strange synagogue in Jerusalem I visited on my first trip to Israel. It was built by Jews who emigrated from Africa. They brought with them a very odd custom that was part of their tradition for 2000 years. Like every congregation, there was an ark behind a beautifully decorated curtain, with a number of Torahs inside. But on the adjacent wall, highlighted by special lighting and built into its surface, was a coffin. I knew there couldn’t be a body inside. Jewish law forbids Kohanim from coming in contact with the dead or even being in the same room with them. So I asked, what in the world was a coffin doing so prominently displayed in a synagogue?
The elder of the congregation explained it to me. “You surely know the mishna in Ethics of the Fathers that says we are to constantly consider three things in order to avoid falling into sin. ‘Know from where you come, know to where you are finally going, and know before whom you are destined to give a final accounting. You come from a drop of semen; you are going to the grave; and you will have to justify all the deeds of your life before the Creator.’
Gazing at the coffin every day as they occupied themselves with their prayers to God, created a visual symbol – not for the affirmation of death – but one that could help transform life. To the outsider it might appear morbid. To those who understand its message, it is a profound statement with a demand for introspection by its viewers. Knowing that death awaits us helps us to evaluate everything we do in a different way.
One of the most beautiful morning blessings is Modeh Ani – Thank you God for returning my soul to me. Why do we say this prayer only in the morning? The moment when you first wake up in the morning is the most wonderful of the twenty-four hours because it is filled with such potential. No matter how drained you may feel, you know that, during the new day before you, absolutely anything can happen. The implication of this prayer is, “God, You have given me at least one more day to make a difference in the world, to accomplish something, to help someone, to teach something, to touch someone, to do the right thing. Thank You for this wonderful opportunity that You have given me.”
We are nearing the end of the Ten Days of Awe. On Rosh Hashanah I asked you to reflect on the past year. Now I ask you to reflect on the new year. Some people have a “bucket list,” a list of things they want to do before they die. I am asking you to make a similar list, but call it a “Regrets” list. Write on that list, things that you will regret not doing if you die tomorrow. Hopefully that will not happen and you will have the opportunity to cross off all the items on your list by the time next Rosh Hashanah comes around.
We should all live purposefully and with urgency because, when you think about it, even without a medical diagnosis, we all have a fatal disease – we are all mortals. And keep in mind, this is a short year, because Rosh Hashanah comes REALLY early next year!
B’rosh Hashanah niggun
 Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 53a
 Harry “Breaker” Harbord Morant