Today Is A Good Day To Die

Kol Nidre Sermon 2017 / 5778
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz, Agudas Achim Congregation

Today Is A Good Day to Die

“Today is a good day to die.”

Today is a good day to die. This aphorism is often, inaccurately, ascribed to the 19th century Native American warrior Crazy Horse from the Oglala Lakota tribe. Victorious in the battle of Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse proved not only a brave and gifted military commander but was also known for his ethical conduct and his kindness towards the poor and vulnerable. Whether Crazy Horse spoke those words or not is almost irrelevant: these words gain an aura of credibility because they match the deeds of a great man.

What does it mean to say ‘today is a good day to die’? Who of us would dare utter this, fearing that the consequences might play out in our actual lives. Few of us are ready to die at all; when confronted with our own mortality, we cling to life tenaciously. This is the natural order of things.

In fact, the Torah and Talmud mandate this; we are a religious culture focused on the here-and-now, and obsessed with life. ‘vechai bahem’, the Torah tells us, ‘you shall live by them [the commandments].’ (Lev.  18:5)

The Talmud (Tractate Yoma 85b) in turn clarifies this: ‘v’lo yamut bahem, ‘and you shall not die by them’. This introduces the concept of pikuach nefesh – the saving of a life. This value trumps (almost) every other commandment or prohibition in the Torah.

It seems strange to embrace death, for a life-affirming culture as our own, where we lift our glasses of wine every Shabbat and Festival with a hearty ‘L’chaim’.

Tonight, we are starting a 25 hour journey of the exploration, contemplation and confrontation of our own mortality.

I’ve spoken previously about the High Holidays as sacred drama and holy re-enactment. We have looked at the Great Aleinu in the Rosh haShanah Musaf service and reflected not only on its many complex messages but also on its function as embodied prayer. We have considered the value of surrender, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Our liturgy invites us to open up, to chip away at the flint that surrounds our hearts, so that in the words of the Prophet Ezekiel (36:26), our hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. Our tradition plays a great deal with these images of ‘openness’, and deliberately so: open gates, open books, open hearts. Our prayers receive entry on High and we are inscribed in the Book of Life, the metaphors state—but only if we fully dare open ourselves – a consequence of the process of surrender we tentatively began on Rosh haShanah.

The next step following on from surrender and openness is the bravery to look our own mortality in the eye. The liturgy intuits how hard this is for us; this is why the Machzor brings us the Unetaneh Tokef:

On this day all of us pass before You,
One by one, like a flock of sheep.
As a shepherd counts sheep, making each of them pass under the staff.
So review every living being,
Measuring the years
And decreeing the destiny of every creature.

On Rosh haShanah it is written,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die… 

We can interpret this text through the lens of traditional, determinist, interventionist theology: God ordains who lives and who dies. If anything, many of us would reject such a reading: is that really the kind of God we envision, either as a theoretical construct or as a spiritual reality? This notion tears open the wounds of theodicy: if God decrees, then how can we accept decrees that strike us as patently unjust?

Instead, we can read this text not as prescriptive or as descriptive. As a script, with stage directions. As sacred drama. It is not what God does or does not do that matters; rather what matters is whether we can imagine ourselves as the flock of sheep, passing one by one through this great journey called life: vulnerable in our mortality, yearning for connection, open to transformative relationship.

The methodology of sacred drama is to confront us with an existential experience that is both contained and contextualized. We know these contained existential encounters from other situations in our lives: going on a roller-coaster ride feeling the excited tingle of fear yet trusting that we are safe. Watching a thriller or horror movie that appeals to our darker selves while knowing that the film will end and the lights will come back on. What makes sacred drama unique from these other staged encounters is that it is not only contained but that by contextualizing it, we frame it. We frame our sacred drama with the language of meaning, morality, purpose and hope. Sacred drama is not meant to merely shock, impress or tantalize. It is meant to transform and redeem.

The entire Yom Kippur service addresses the sacred drama of death. We dress in white, shroud-like garments, we abstain (when we are medically fit to) from eating and drinking, from physical intimacy, from bathing and anointing and from wearing leather shoes.

We become like the angels; saturated with prayer, defying our immediate physical needs. And we become like the dead, who have no need for the dignities of nourishment, grooming or physical relations. The air is thick with our Ashamnu’s and Al Chets, with our apology and atonement, as if we are standing on the brink of life and there is no turning point. And at last, in the great climax of the day, we pronounce the final rousing words of our earthly existence as we close out Ne’ilah with powerful renditions of the Shema, the Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto l’Olam Va’ed and a sevenfold chanting of Adonai Hu ha’Elohim – the Eternal is God.

These are mirror images of our liturgies of death. 

On Yom Kippur, death and life are each other’s constant companions. They vie for our attention, they struggle to capture our soul. We clear away the comfortable distractions from our life, the white noise of busyness that clutters up our neshamot, our souls. We attune our ears to a deeper listening, our senses to perceive what is deep and real beneath the choppy waves of our daily lives. We sink in it and drink from it, like a womb, or a mikveh for the soul.

Throughout Jewish history, this symbolism of death must have had radically different meanings. Perhaps in the dark moments of our People’s history, amidst the raging fires of persecution, the tragedies of high mortality in a pre-modern world, the texts and rituals of Yom Kippur brought us a semblance of solace. Maybe for us here and now, the meaning shifts.
Few of us may be in immediate physical danger in the way our ancestors experienced it, the way many communities across the world still experience today. For us, embracing our own mortality opens us in new ways: to unacknowledged fears, unresolved pain and unexpressed hope. Rather than walking away from what is culturally uncomfortable for us, we march towards it, with open eyes, ears and hearts.

We will all lose loved ones and we will all die. Yom Kippur is the theatre of mortality, the dress-rehearsal of redemption. We allow ourselves to feel pain, grief and loss as well as hope, joy and love. In fact, the fusing of these seemingly contradictory states is where the power lies.

Yom Kippur and its symbolism is counter-cultural. It starts conversations and evokes emotions that we would ordinarily shy away from. I’ll share another quote that is impossible to accurately attribute: ‘religion is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.’ It is to sanctify the unbearable ambivalence of living and infuse it with purpose.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon-writer, wrote a seminal book ‘Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End.’ Given the high density of physicians, researchers and scientists in this congregation, I am aware that I am skating on thin ice! In this book, Gawande makes a case for not just the art of living but also the art of dying.

With the advancements of modern medicine, he argues, dying has become a medicalized, protracted and sometimes disempowered process. What the scalpel and the apothecary can answer is not the question of the soul. Our secular culture has forgotten the language of mortality and the hallowed theatre of contemplation. He writes:

‘Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the “dying role” and its importance to people as life approaches its end. People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, settle relationships, establish their legacies, make peace with God, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay. They want to end their stories on their own terms. This role is, observers argue, among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind.” (p. 249)

Dr. Gawande then goes on to describe the dignified death of a cancer patient he knew, called Peg. Like the Biblical Jacob who blessed each of his children, Peg orchestrated her own farewell. Peg was a teacher and she took each child aside and gave them a personal gift and a blessing and emphasized to each student that they were special. She played her role in life’s sacred drama.

There is, of course, like with every compelling metaphor, a risk. Our sacred drama today is not meant for entertainment or a mere esthetic experience, nor is it meant to side-step its own triggers and limitations.
Yom Kippur as sacred drama is not a flight of fancy but an overlay that helps us see reality as it is and prepare for it, in both pain and joy. Our sacred drama, from the Vidui to the Ashamnu, from the Martyrology to Yizkor touches a raw nerve for all of us. These are not just abstractions but a poetry of reality: none of us have been left untouched by pain. Many of us – myself included – have experienced profound loss. The universalism of this shared experience makes it both powerful and fraught. Religion can feel emotionally manipulative, if we are to critique it uncharitably. We have to prepare ourselves for the very real sadness and the very real tears that can well up in our community. We enter this sanctuary bearing our memories in our hearts as an offering before Eternity. As Rabbi Alan Lew’s phenomenal book on the spirituality of the High Holidays states in its title: ‘This is Real, and You Are Completely Unprepared.’

We are unprepared; existentially so. But through its sacred drama, through containment and contextualization, through ritual and prayer, through communal solidarity and universal experience, we can journey together. All of us. We may not always be able to share each other’s burdens or make an honest estimation of each other’s pain, but we can hold the space, be strong and courageous for each other.

Yom Kippur is all metaphor and script. Yom Kippur is real.

The words of another physician-philosopher come to mind. Paul Kalanithi was a talented young neuro-surgeon with a hunger for meaning who was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. He was newly married, planning a family and making a stellar ascent on the career ladder. His powerful book ‘When Breath Becomes Air – What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Death’ chronicles his journey with terminal illness, culminating in his own death as the young father of his baby daughter Cady. In his stark, eloquent, uncompromising yet warm-hearted prose, he leaves Cady a blessing in the final page of his book:

‘There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbably, is all but past.
That message is simple:
When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.’ (p. 199)

Yom Kippur invites us to provide a ledger of our actions. The paradox of this liturgy of death is how it reaffirms our commitment to life, how it feeds our hunger and thirst for living.
When that final Shofar blast blows tomorrow night, we die and are reborn again, free from sin, with our ledgers wiped clean by a redemptive, loving Hand. By brushing up against death and all its attendant emotions of fear and pain, Yom Kippur teaches us to live, breathe and love more deeply.

Today is a good day to die. Today is an even better day to choose life. Today is a great day to open ourselves up to love and to love more deeply than we’ve ever loved before, to love as God loves us. Today we are called to greatness; to bind our deeds to our words. May we be transformed and redeemed and transform and redeem and build the world on love.

In this time right now, that is an enormous thing.

G’mar chatimah tovah, may we all be sealed in the Book of Life.


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