By Rabbi David
Gmar chatimah tovah. It is so good to see each and every one of you on this holy vision-quest day of Yom Kippur.
Vision is this year’s spiritual theme. On Rosh Hashanah we explored Judaism’s core truth that what’s invisible often is more real than what’s visible, that how we see the world – optical delusions and all – powerfully shapes us and the world. Today, Yom Kippur, we align with our highest and fullest vision of life itself.
I heard on the radio about a busy professional who received medical test results, a difficult diagnosis and two options. Option one was aggressive treatment to extend life by up to a year, with rough side effects. Option two was comfort care (not to treat the underlying illness), but a life horizon of maybe three months.
Quickly this person cycled back and forth through every stage of grief: denial, anger, sadness, bargaining and acceptance. After a second opinion, the choice was comfort care and a shorter life.
With a clear and close-up vision of life’s time horizon, our hero went about wrapping up unfinished business. A legal will allocated physical possessions; an ethical will shared wisdom gleaned in life. Lots of deep talks, some difficult, with people whose relationships were freighted. Forgiveness sought and given. Some hurts healed; hatchets buried. Favorite music. Bucket-list trips. Vibrant sunsets. Intimacy of all kinds. Gratitude for everyday beauty. The felt sense of life’s fragility inspiring wonder and awe. Round-the-clock vigils.
It went on for three months like the doctors said – then four, then six – but death seemed no nearer. Doctors were puzzled, but then news came that the hospital mixed up some tests. Dozens of patients received wrong results. Some were healthy but received fatal diagnoses; others got clean results but instead were gravely ill.
Lawyers had a field day – and so did every patient who’d lived through a false alarm. Imagine the relief in discovering that a death sentence was lifted. Our hero returned to regular life, off the clock of imminent demise, pouring renewed energy into daily routine.
Weeks later, our hero died in a car accident. End of story.
When I heard this story on the radio, suddenly the whole High Holy Day journey, our vision theme – and the deep meaning of Yom Kippur, “life, the universe and everything” – all seemed vividly clear.
Our hero received a jolt that made life seem short. With that vision of life’s time horizon up close and personal, our hero cut to the chase and lived a fuller life – even though the hospital got it all wrong. Then after a correction restored everyday routines, those routines saw life’s time horizon as far more distant – even though a routine car trip was about to go all wrong.
So which vision was clearer: life’s up-close time horizon when our hero thought death was imminent but wasn’t, or life’s faraway time horizon when our relieved hero returned to everyday routine but a fatal crash was imminent?
Imagine if our hero hadn’t received the jolt of a fatal diagnosis. Consider all the living our hero did when our hero envisioned death. What if our hero’s story had skipped the expected death that turned out not to be? If instead our hero’s story was just the car crash, an unexpected death, what would our hero’s last months have been?
Our hero’s story is jolting and dramatic, but in truth our hero’s story is our story – your story, my story, everyone’s story. None of us know how life will be or when life will end. That’s why Judaism’s ethical tradition (Pirkei Avot 2:15), and the rabbinic tradition (B.T. Shabbat 153a), both call us to teshuvah – to return, repent, renew, re-vision our lives – not on the day we die but the day before we die. We don’t know when that day will be. It might be tomorrow, so the day for teshuvah is today.
That’s why Yom Kippur rehearses our death, to inspire us, to jolt us, to live most fully today, do teshuvah today and break through barriers today. Yom Kippur is about urgency. Like our hero who got a wake-up call, we need to jolt our defenses down, to see what is and do what’s right – especially when it’s hard. That’s why Yom Kippur swaps the food of daily life for a taste of death. Visioning our mortality, we can be inspired to re-vision our lives starting today.
This jolt ain’t fun. How many people spend their lives trying to avoid it, deny it, outrun it. We all know folks who buy things, make wild choices or plain bad choices to distract from the ebbs of life.
But as James Taylor sang, “You can run but you cannot hide: this is widely known.” Whoever we are – rich, poor, older, younger, healthy, ailing, confident, unsure, gay, straight, trans, happy or sad, Republican or Democrat (or neither), mystic or skeptic, spiritual or not, whatever race, gender or creed – we all share three things in common. Today we’re alive, someday we won’t be, and none of us knows when.
And yet society does an amazing job pretending otherwise. Death is rarely discussed, and generally only in hushed tones. We treat death like defeat, especially doctors. Later life is devalued in the mistaken view that life is for the young. Ask most policy makers about hospice and they’ll turn gray or turn away.
What’s invisible really is often more real than what’s visible. Society does all it can to hide death, but it’s all the more real for hiding in plain sight. And as our radio hero taught, visioning death can make our life so much more full and vibrant.
Maybe that’s why Jewish tradition tried so hard to envision mal’ach ha-mavet, the Angel of Death. Unlike society today, Jewish tradition gave death a central place and taught that spiritually death is gentle, like lifting a hair from milk (B.T. Moed Katan 28a). Jewish tradition also gave death a prominent place in the angelic pantheon. Tradition’s Angel of Death is kind and affable, persistent but likable.
Actually, Talmud made the Angel of Death out to be quite a character. Their Angel of Death could be fooled. If someone was gravely ill, saw death coming and wanted to fool the Angel of Death, change the name (B.T. Rosh Hashanah 16b): the person whom the Angel of Death was after no longer would exist. If someone saw death coming, start studying Torah (B.T. Moed Katan 28a). The Angel of Death wouldn’t dare disturb studying Torah, right?
It’s telling that these stories exist at all. Tradition’s rabbis felt themselves to have such an earthy relationship with death that they envisioned the Angel of Death as such a character, then told sacred stories about trying to fool the Angel of Death.
We don’t need to take these sacred stories at face value to see that they are deeper than they might appear. Dig deeper into the stories, and we learn that the Angel of Death wouldn’t really be put off. If in illness all someone did is change a name or likeness, then the Angel of Death also will change likeness and finish the job. And can we really fool the Angel of Death by studying Torah? Even Talmud says no: the Angel of Death will cause a tree to fall, and the sound will interrupt study for an instant, and in that instant death will come (B.T. Moed Katan 28a).
Why does Talmud tell these stories about the Angel of Death, and why should we care? If our radio hero could talk, we might hear three answers.
First, the Angel of Death always gets the last word: we all die. So did our radio hero; so did everyone in Torah; so will we.
Second, we are in relationship with death, whether we happen to think so or not. We may think we’re dying when actually death is far off; or we may not see death approaching imminently; or we may try never to think about death. We may think death a subject too morbid, relegated to the furthest possible corner of our awareness. Whatever our own approach, we are in relationship with death even by negation. Death is our spiritual elephant in the room.
Third, when death comes, death comes in relation to vision. The rabbis imagined that the Angel of Death had to be seen – and if we won’t see, the Angel causes the spiritual eye to open. A veil over our vision lifts, and we see what until then was hiding in plain sight. Routine life veils vision, but seeing a glimpse of our mortality reminds us that what’s most real truly is most often invisible.
But why wait until our actual death to glimpse ultimate reality and see ourselves into living our fullest life? We don’t have to – and today’s Torah portion, and this Yom Kippur day, both say the same thing. Don’t wait! Don’t wait until it’s too late to live the fullest life you can. Don’t wait to see that life and death are given together precisely so that vision can inspire us, even jolt us into really living (Deut. 30):
הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֨וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ …. וּבָחַרְתָ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים
לְמַ֥עַן תִחְיֶ֖ה אַתָ֥ה וְזַרְעֶךָ: לְאַהֲבָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָֹ֣”ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ
לִשְׁמֹ֥עַ בְּקֹל֖וֹ וּלְדָבְקָה־ב֑וֹ כִּ֣י ה֤וּא חַיֶּ֨יךָ֙ וְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמֶ֔יךָ ….
[A vision of] life and death is given to you….
Choose life so you can [fully] live, you and your legacy –
to love YHVH your God, to hear [God’s] voice and cling to it.
For that is your life and the fullness of your days ….
We can understand Torah to describe not our literal length of days, but rather the fullest lives we can live. Our fullest lives come by seeing life and death given together, then making the choice to let ourselves be jolted into living as fully as we can. We can choose to live in ways that won’t be trapped by the complacency of belief that we have all the time in the world.
And deep within myself, I feel pushback: “Choice? Why would I want to make that choice?” Our instinct is not to make that choice, to not want to make it. And still, what’s most real often is invisible, sometimes by our own preferred blindness. That’s what our hero’s practice run seeing death taught. With our 20/20 hindsight, seeing what came of our hero’s life, we might see that our hero had the privilege of a practice run. And when a practice run came, our hero who could have chosen many responses, chose a path of fullness.
Metaphorically every day can be our practice run, especially Yom Kippur. We too can make our hero’s choice. It’s a choice that Yom Kippur gives us the privilege to make, and a jolt to make – a life that feels full or a life that feels less than it could.
We practice dying to get living. So, let’s practice. What do you want your life to be before you die? No limit or time horizon. Really, what do you want your life to be before you die? Let’s go inside: find within you the priorities, relationships, bucket lists, all that you want to do and be in your life by the time this life is over.
Now put a five-year time horizon on your life. Someone tells you that you have five years to live. What changes? What do you do right away and what waits?
Now put a one-year time horizon on your life. Someone tells you that you have one year to live. What happens then?
Now it’s three months, like our radio hero. Three months.
Now it’s three weeks. Now it’s three days.
Did priorities shift as your time horizon pulled in from infinite to years to months to weeks to days? Did you feel any stirring to get moving on something that felt delayed or bottled up? If you felt any stirring, that’s your soul trying to tell you something. And if you felt nothing, that too is your soul asking you to tune in.
The inward journey we just took, in three minutes, is the core journey of Yom Kippur. This is what tradition means that we can transform our lives in an instant. We make all sorts of choices all the time: practicalities shape many of them and that’s okay – often even laudable. And, if any of your choices about whom to forgive, what to repair, what to try and how to be inside assume some long-distant time horizon, or refuse to see the Angel of Death, or imagine that you can cheat death, remember that your soul just sent you a three-minute vision of what’s most real within you.
See that vision for all it is. See that vision as spiritual jet fuel empowering you to overcome any inner barrier to living your fullest life precisely because we don’t have forever. See the vision that life and death are given together as a great gift. In the words of the Psalmist’s vision: למנות ימינו כן הודע ונביא לבב חכמה / “Teach us to count our days, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).
I’m grateful for a Judaism unafraid to offer us this vision, a Judaism unafraid to point us to places most real and raw, most empowering and most challenging. I’m grateful for a Judaism that sees us as inwardly capable, not too inwardly brittle to see all that we can be. I’m grateful for a Judaism that can even joke about the Angel of Death as a way to show us, with loving joy, this vision of wholeness that’s worth all we can give, and all we can be.
May this holy Yom Kippur open our eyes and open our hearts to live our fullest life. Whatever time we have on this plane, may we feel holy urgency to live by our brightest lights and highest callings. And in that merit, may we be sealed for a new year of goodness, a new life of goodness, for us and for all.
What if I fully believed