Live Like You Were Dying
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In all the coverage of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, I am struck by her perseverance, her brilliance, her humor, and her diligence. But one thought stands out the most: I am not sure if anyone in this country for these past few years has been more constantly aware of the repercussions of their own death. Her death was the subject of op-eds; commonly spoken about in political discourse; joked about on talk shows and skits on Saturday Night Live. Justice Ginsburg was asked about it in almost every interview. . . . Sometimes coyly and other times bluntly, but she always got some sort of question like, “What happens when you die? Have you thought about that?”
She was remarkably composed for such a grave topic. . . . Sometimes she laughed it off. (She told the story of a senator who was gleeful at a bad prognosis she got a few years ago and then recounted in her quiet and polite manner that that senator has since passed on while she was very much alive.) Other times she waxed beautifully poetic.
Now by most accounts, Justice Ginsburg was a kind, caring person. She was friends even with those with whom she disagreed before her tenure on the court. . . . But I can’t help but wonder if some of her grace and poise had to do with the fact that she was constantly reminded of the import of her death. . . . What must it have been like for her to spend each day thinking about the repercussions if it were her last? How did that change the way she comported herself professionally and even personally?
If she did, in fact, contemplate this aspect of her life and death, then it is one of the many, many ways that Justice Ginsburg embodied Jewish ideals. In the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 153a), Rabbi Eliezer tells his students that they should repent one day before their death.
“But rabbi,” his students ask, “how can anyone know when the day of death will arrive?”
“All the more so!” replied Eliezer. “Repent today for you may die tomorrow. This way, a person lives their entire life in a state of teshuvah, of repentance.” . . .
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai chimes in and says this is like a king who invites a number of guests to a feast but doesn’t put a time on the invitation. The wise among them immediately get all dressed up for the party and wait outside the palace. . . . The foolish go back to work and wait. When the king suddenly calls for the doors to be opened and the feast to begin, the wise enter, they are party ready and are greeted with joy. The foolish show up to the party with dirty, work-stained clothing and are forced to stand in the back of the feast.
Rabbi Yohanan’s point is clear: He reminds us that we are all going to be called into that King’s feast someday, we don’t know when. The question is how do we want to look when we go. We should be like the wise ones who are always ready, who make sure our spiritual appearance will be welcomed when the time comes. In this way, the rabbis of the Talmud are essentially just doing what they always do: Reminding us to be better people. They are just couching their warning in the most dire, or most final, metaphor available.
What is it about the contemplation of death that might make us want to repent and be better people? Surely there are other methods of getting someone to change their ways for the better. What is it about the potential completion of our earthly journey that the rabbis are so sure will make us take the path of the righteous?
For Rabbi Eliezer, it is about “meeting the King.” What God will say; how God will judge us when we have our exit interview from this life. This can, of course, be an effective inspiration for teshuvah. . . . If you were about to meet someone who knew absolutely everything about you – knew everything you have done and, perhaps more importantly, everything you thought while doing it – how would you feel? I imagine you might try to change some things real quick before going into that meeting, I know I would.
But even without the Divine Damoclean sword hanging over us, without the fear of Heavenly judgement, confrontation with mortality can inspire teshuvah as we think about legacy. Being faced with one’s death calls us to consider what we would be leaving behind. What morals and lessons have we imparted on those whom we have known? Are there relationships we leave broken that have yet to be repaired? What words have we left unsaid that need to be spoken?
Like the dinner guests in Rabbi Yohanan’s fable, when we think we have all the time in the world, we are more likely to put off what is important. If we think that all of this could be over tomorrow, that might change how we spend today. Suddenly, the immediate but immaterial seems less important than the long term that we have been putting off. If we knew it were our last, wouldn’t we want to spend the day with the people we love, telling them we love them, fixing relationships and trying to correct our mistakes as best we can? Our money, no longer of use to us, would be spent setting up the next generation, helping those in need and ensuring that our values live beyond us. In short, we would spend the day doing the work required to ensure that we leave the world looking as best we can. Perhaps trying to get us to live this way is the impetus for the rabbis asking us to believe that death could be imminent.
This year of all years, I don’t think we need a reminder of the precariousness of life . . . but our people do have a built in reminder of life’s fragility. A day when we are all meant to anticipate the end of our lives and use whatever emotions come to spur us on to right action. That day, friends, begins tomorrow. It is Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur forces this realization on all of us. On Yom Kippur, we are asked to behave as if we were already dead. We don’t eat; we don’t bathe; we don’t have intimate relations. Traditionally, we are asked to wear a kittle, the garment that Jews are married in – wear every Yom Kippur, and then are buried in. The mahzor is full of allusions to “who will live and who will die.” . . . Standing before the Lord on Yom Kippur, with no physical needs and literally wearing the clothing one will be buried in . . . it is a dress rehearsal for our deaths. The rituals and liturgy of Yom Kippur force us to consider the end of our lives and perhaps, in that mindset, we are also forced to do teshuvah . . . to become better people.
Where do you think you will stand on Sunday night? When you are called into your one-on-one with our Creator, will you be one of the wise guests ready to attend the feast, or is there still work for you to do? Our job does not just over the next 48 hours, but every day of our lives. It is to make sure that if, God forbid, any of us were called to enter that Divine feast . . . that we would be ready. We need to ask for forgiveness and make amends. Sometimes just as important as asking, we need to give forgiveness, as well. Make sure the people we love know it; make sure the people we appreciate in this world know that, too. If there is a cause, an idea you have, for something great, don’t put that off. Start it right now. Do whatever you need to do to. In the words of my grandfather, “Always leave your campsite better than when you found it.”
We don’t all meet this moment with the same elegance that Justice Ginsburg did. We read in this morning’s Torah portion about Moses coming to the end of his life. Knowing that he cannot enter the Promised Land . . . as the people approach the border, he can literally see his death on the horizon. Moses complains of God’s unfairness, he complains of the Israelites, he asks God to change his fate, and only then does he acquiesce and speak his final words to the people. They are words of wisdom, warning and blessing. Moses ends his speech by saying . . . כִּ֠י לֹֽא־דָבָ֨ר רֵ֥ק הוּא֙ מִכֶּ֔ם כִּי־ה֖וּא חַיֵּיכֶ֑ם, “This is no empty thing. It is your very life.”
The commentaries can’t decide what Moses means by “this.” Does it mean the Torah is no empty thing? This entire project is worthwhile? It might mean the warning Moses gave is no empty threat that God really will hold us all accountable. Or perhaps, as Rabbeinu Bachya posits, the whole phrase needs to be read together: “This is no empty thing, your life.” Moses is seeing the end of his days, and he wants the people he leaves behind to know that life is not empty, but full. As he looks back on his life and calls his people to think of their future, he is calling us to not treat our lives with emptiness, but to focus on the things that matter.
On Yom Kippur, we are meant to contemplate what our lives look like. How would we feel if this was it? What would we do if we could have more time because, please God, this isn’t it. Through God’s grace, we will get another year and a chance to say what we would say, teach what we would teach, and ensure that we leave the legacy we want to leave.
This life is not empty, says Moshe. Or to put it in the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (may her memory be a blessing) when she was asked by a high school student if she had any advice for young people:
“Whatever you choose to do, leave tracks, and that means don’t do just for yourself, because in the end it’s not going to be fully satisfying. I think you will want to leave the world a little better for your having lived. And there’s no satisfaction that a person can gain from just, what people call ‘turning over a buck.’ That’s equal to the satisfaction that you get from knowing that you have made another’s life, your community, a little better for your effort.”
As we go into Yom Kippur, may we live up to the life and legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. May we heed the warnings of the rabbis and repent as if each day were our last; and may we keep the words of Moses close to our hearts. This life is not empty, but it is also not permanent. May we do everything in our power to leave the world a little better for our having lived.