By Dr. Ismar Schorsch | Chancellor Emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Professor of Jewish History
posted on September 30, 2000 / 1 Tishrei 5761
A year ago a news story in The New York Times caught for me the essence of our annual High Holy Day season. Under the piquant title, "In their Obituaries, Absent Dads Face Life," the Times reported on a job training program in Milwaukee with a twist. Its overt goal was to improve the work skills of fathers down on their luck who had abandoned their children. Child support could come only from men able to hold a job. But the program also aimed to imbue them with a sense of responsibility. A few weeks into their training, after a level of trust had been achieved, they were asked to imagine the obituary their children would one day write on their death and to share it with the group.
The exercise proved to be wrenching and effective. One participant, age 44, had left the city in 1983 and saw his children only three times over the next 15 years. At his funeral, he thought his children might deliver the following judgment: "Our father was not around too much in our lives. But when he did come back into our lives, he added the one thing we missed and that was his love." The bleak landscape of a squandered life did not offer a lot of consolation. Another man, bothered by the brevity of his children's obituary, said: "I realized there wasn't very much for them to say about me."
And that of course was the point. The end-of-life perspective enlarged the canvas, inducing a measure of objectivity and urgency. Though drab, it is still unfinished. As the title of the article implied, the contemplation of our death can help us do more with our lives.
The tactic is not only inspired but thoroughly Jewish. To look at our lives from the end is precisely what the High Holy Days induce us to do. Throughout the year, we exert ourselves to obliterate the traces of our mortality. But in the serenity of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we view the story of our lives backwards. The liturgy of the mahzor does not inundate us with threats of damnation or scenes from hell. It is not our fate after death which fills us with fright, but our failure to make a difference while alive. Reality and not fantasy is the seedbed of our contrition.
The High Holy Days do not deviate from Judaism's deep-seated this-wordly orientation; rather they affirm and intensify it. In last week's double parasha we read again Moses's final and fervent plea to the assembled multitude of Israel to embrace life. "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, if you and your offspring would live . . . (Deuteronomy 30:19)." God's commandments are life-enhancing. It is the world that is in need of salvation, and the task of every Israelite is to advance the welfare of the whole.
This is also the spirit which informs the linchpin of the High Holy Day liturgy, "U-netaneh Toqef-We acclaim this day's pure sanctity, its awesome power (Harlow Mahzor)." The drama described therein is the convening of God's annual court to determine whether our lives are worthy of extension. Metaphor conveys the gravitas of the moment. In the dock, we are confronted with the record of our deeds in our own hand. Are we still adding to the sum total of good in the world? And if not, is our remorse genuine enough to warrant another chance? The calculus of reward and punishment may seem riddled with grievous exceptions, but the act of facing the reality of our dwindling years is sober and salutary. The prayer declaims that, "Man's origin is dust and his end is dust. He spends his life earning bread. He is like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattering dust, a vanishing dream."
And yet there is still time to mend our minute corner of the world. Less full of ourselves, we can make our insignificance matter. We take refuge in God's grandeur and compassion. Remarkably, we end up asking for but one more year. The disparity between the intensity of our introspection and the modesty of our request could not be more disarming. We will have to repeat the spiritual exercise; our reprieve lasts for but one year. It is neither salvation nor long life that we seek, but merely the chance to do better next year. The need to return prevents us from growing lax.
Each year I take up the deathbed poems of my teacher Hillel Bavli to ready myself for the shift in focus that comes with Rosh Hashana. Born in Lithuania in 1893, Professor Bavli came to the Seminary in 1919 and taught Bible, Hebrew and modern Hebrew literature for more than 40 years. He embodied the very best of the Hebrew cultural renaissance unleashed by the eruption of Zionism. He also was a public critic of this institution's ambivalence over the creation of Israel in 1948. Above all, Bavli wrote Hebrew poetry that spanned the many layers of the language and alluded to every corner of its literature. He ranked as America's finest Hebrew poet.
In the spring and summer of 1961 he lay dying of cancer in Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. Despite the racking pain, he penned a series of seven immortal Hebrew poems in which he tried to order the welter of experiences and clash of values that constituted his inner life. A flood of subterranean memories return to mind and he imagines his youth addressing him:
Your buried life has roused itself,
Fluttering forth from under piles of dust
Hovering opposite me.
Your tormented face is embedded in me,
Confounded, casting about as if wishing to reveal secrets.
The fire of youth is congealed therein
Inside a volcano of intense creativity. . . .
In another poem, he is compelled to admit that the task exceeds the time left.
How will I assemble the shards of my disjointed life?
The evening darkens, enveloping me in its sheet
Behind me stands a screen-here he is -!
The emissary sent to return to its repository
The vessel with its secret borrowed from the vault on high.
How will I ever weld the fragments of my life into a whole?
But Bavli uses his moments of clarity also to look forward. His life will not end with death. The spiritual kinship with God which sustained him in this imperfect world will be infinitely intensified for eternity in an existence without darkness.
Put on a kippa, don a tallit and pray.
Your day is sinking, the darkness thickens.
Just a bit longer and the hidden gates will open -
Approach in prayer and peer in.
Secret voices in a language you won't understand will encompass you
A new light, wholly other, will bathe you in brilliance . . .
(the translations are mine)
His existential situation, the power of his language, the complexity of the man, have made Hillel Bavli my incomparable companion at this time of year. He remains my teacher for life as well as literature. The High Holy Days afford us the opportunity of appreciating the beauty of life by accepting its impermanence.
May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of good health and spiritual growth.
Shabbat shalom ve-shana tova.
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