Preparing for Death (from the archives)

This is a commentary on this week’s parashah, Nitzavim, which I wrote many years ago. It first appeared here, and is also published in Living Torah.

This year, Nitzavim/Vayeilech falls on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah, but it is often read on Shabbat Shuvah (Shabbat of Repentance, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur). The themes of death and repentance occur in both these parashiyot and in the Days of Awe. Moses gathers the people to speak to them before his death, and in Deuteronomy 30, variations of the word shuv (“turn,” which has the same root as t’shuvah, “repentance”) appear seven times.

On Yom Kippur in particular, the theme of death in the liturgy often disturbs the modern worshiper. Traditional dress is a kittel, which is also the garment used for burial. We recite the Vidui, confessional prayer, which is traditionally recited before death. In the Un’taneh Tokef, we read that God decides who will live and who will die: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” What can this mean? Are we to believe that our futures are predestined? Or that death is a punishment for wrongdoing, that those dear to us who passed away in the previous year had sinned and repented insufficiently?

In Nitzavim/Vayeilech, God tells Moses that he is about to die. Few of us ever receive such a warning. Beyond a sense of morbidity or a fear of punishment, why should we live with an awareness of our own inevitable death? B’Rosh HaShanah yikateivun uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeichateimun, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” In Hebrew, the word chatimah indicates both a seal and a signature. Each year, each day, whether we live or die, our actions and our words make an imprint on the world and the people around us. At my grandfather’s funeral, I was struck that people consistently said the same things about him. On Yom Kippur that year, the Un’taneh Tokef said to me that through his life, he left a distinct, enduring, and good impression behind.

The word that repeats and declares a theme in the end of Deuteronomy 30 is chayim, “life.” In verse 19 we read, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live.” Some translations read, “so that you and your offspring may live.” Nehama Leibowitz points out the trouble inherent in that verse by quoting the Netziv, who writes in his book Ha’amek Davar, “How, is it conceivable to state: ‘Perform a certain action in order that the action come into being’? If the question facing us is whether to choose life or death, we cannot be advised to choose life in order to live.” She explains, “The means cannot be synonymous with the end” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim [Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1993], p. 314). What life do we gain when we choose blessings over curses? How do our choices affect the lives of our offspring?

Perhaps this verse brings us back to the theme of mortality. Moses is facing his own death, and his message forces us to do the same. We learn that as a result of his actions, he is not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Even though God does not tell him he is going to die until chapter 31, immediately following his speech to the people, we get a glimpse of Moses’ own state of mind when he tells the people, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active [or, come and go]. Moreover, Adonai has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan’ ” (Deuteronomy 31:2). What awareness does Moses have at that moment that he feels compelled to pass on to the people? It is the most important lesson of all: that our lives are fleeting, and that we are ultimately judged by the choices we make during our lives.

When we are aware of our own mortality, we are behooved to repent, that is, to return and review our choices and attitudes and to resolve to change them for the better. Our legacy, our immortality, whether or not we are sealed in the Book of Life, is determined not by the continuation or cessation of our physical existence, but by the impact we make, our unique and enduring signature which we leave in the minds and hearts of others.

Other texts to consider on this theme

A Man in His Life

By Yehuda Amichai

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

“Is it not, then, an impossible assignment to which destiny has set us? It does not ask of us that we hold life dear at one moment, and cheap at the next, but that we do both simultaneously.… …only with God can we ease the intolerable tension of our existence. For only when He is given, can we hold life at once infinitely precious and yet as a thing lightly to be surrendered. Only because of Him is it made possible for us to clasp the world, but with relaxed hands; to embrace it, but with open arms. –Rabbi Milton Steinberg, from the sermon “To Hold with Open Arms”

Questions for discussion/thought

  1. In the poem A Man In His Life, what is Yehuda Amichai’s message about the nature of life?
  2. In Rabbi Steinberg’s view, what is a key element in dealing with the ephemeral nature of life?
  3. Compare the two texts above and the parashah. What message can you take away at this time of year about repentance, life, and death?
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