A matter of life and death
September 28, 2011
Rabbi Steven Greenberg of CLAL once said his favorite story for the High Holy Days involves a lonely old miser who treats his employees poorly.
Over the course of one miraculous night, the miser has three visions that give a glimpse of his more innocent past, his penurious present, and the dismal future that awaits him if he does not change his ways. He greets the new day with a promise to do teshuva and open his heart to others.
The story is, of course, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed because he is able to rehearse his own death and look back on his grim legacy. Given a second chance, he resolves to become “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.”
The Days of Awe also allow us to rehearse our own deaths. The eerie U’Netaneh Tokef prayer forces us to face our own mortality, with its invocation of “who will live and who will die; who will die at their predestined time and who before their time.” We read the binding of Isaac, a story of thwarted death and second chances. On Yom Kippur, we wrap ourselves in shroud-like garments and deny ourselves our mortal pleasures.
The goal is to emerge, as the sun sets on Yom Kippur, as if into a new dawn. Like Scrooge, we recall who we are, who we might be, and who we might become — if we have the insight and resolve to change. “[L]ike every real encounter with Death,” writes Rabbi Shefa Gold, the Days of Awe urge us “into the fullness of living. On Yom Kippur, Death becomes our rebbe.”
The High Holy Days mix happiness and dread, fear and relief. They can bring us back to our true selves, but only if we allow ourselves to enter into the full drama of the season.
To all the readers of New Jersey Jewish News, may you have a healthy and sweet New Year, one filled with new beginnings and the fullness of living.