Magazine article Tikkun

Ever Dying, Never Dead-That's Life!

Magazine article Tikkun

Ever Dying, Never Dead-That's Life!

Article excerpt

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^4m Ma'amin-"\ believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah." Notice that it does not say, "I believe in the Messiah." WTiat we Jews pledge allegiance to is not belief in the Messiah, but we must believe in the coming of the Messiah. …

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