It seems that humans, from their inception, are destined to struggle with the meaning of existence. We ‘clothe’ ourselves in many superficialities in order to ‘escape’ the torment of unanswered questions. We search for wholeness, for completion and harmony - and instead encounter fragmentation, dissonance, and discord.
In the Rosh Hashana liturgy, the Rabbis give expression to the elementary nature of mankind, but equally affirm the human ability to rise above our primordial nature. As we frequently chant in our prayers ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה – Repentance, prayer and charity can avert the evil decree, our actions can indeed shape our destiny. The challenge is to stand at the edge of the abyss and look down without falling; to internalize the ephemeral nature of our lives and yet build foundations; to embrace uncertainty yet create structure and value. To live with the fragments whilst yearning for the whole. This tension finds expression best in the sacred Unataneh Tokef prayer:
אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר. בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ. מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר, כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ, וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל, כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר, וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה, וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת, וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ, וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף.
Man’s origin is from dust and his end is dust; he earns his bread at risk of his life; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a vanishing cloud, a blowing wind, floating dust, and a fleeting dream.
The verses in this prayer originate from the book of Job (7:1, 14:1) and Kohelet (6:12. 12:7), both of which focus on suffering, crisis and the transitory nature of existence. We are described as a broken vessel. That is man - broken, transitory, fragmented and tormented by visions of his own death. Intonations of death pervade the liturgy of the Days of Awe, and the question is what is the purpose of this imagery at this time?
“Those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.”
Spinoza, 12 centuries later states the opposite:
“A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death.” (The Ethics part 4).
Should our focus be on death or life? Will we lead more meaningful and fuller lives if we concentrate on our mortality or immortality? Is Judaism a religion of life or death?
Judaism reveres life. The laws of impurity aim at distancing ourselves from death. The first command to mankind is to propagate life. The Torah opens with the idea of life and closes with the idea of life. Most laws can be overridden to save life. The Talmud famously posits that “anyone who kills one Jewish soul is blamed as if he destroyed an entire world” (T. Sanhedrin 37a) The messianic vision is one in which death is vanquished altogether. However, Judaism equally does not evade or deny death. On Yom Kippur we literally live out our death – wear our death shrouds in shul, pound on the closing gate of life, contemplate our pitiful existence made from dust and ashes. In many ways these intonations of death attest to the Jewish principle that death should be seen as a means of affirming our fight for life.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross, famous for her five stages of grief and a pioneer in near death experiences, writes:
“Death is the key to the door of life. It is through accepting the finiteness of our individual existences that we are enabled to find the strength and courage to reject those extrinsic roles and expectations and to devote each day of our lives - however long they may be - to growing as fully as we are able.”
Mankind’s approach to mortality has had many variants over the centuries. In many ways I see those responses being voiced in our own tradition.
The first is a perspective we could term existential hedonism that grapples with the futility of existence and chooses immediate gratification through hedonistic life choices. It claims that mankind has nothing to add or give and will ultimately return to the dust of the earth - in other words: be happy, make merry, for tomorrow you may die. The main part of the book of Kohelet echoes such sentiments (there is a change of direction at the end). Penned by the man who had everything, Shlomo Hamelech seems to emphasize the futility of choice and delay of gratification, for in any case everything is vanity and disappears quickly.
Rabbi Sacks points out that the word ani – ‘I’ is used 29 times, and first-person speech - libi/raiti is used 117 times. The subversive message of Kohelet is that a person who views life only through the prism of the 'I' will naturally see life as meaninglessness. True happiness comes from giving rather than taking, from a shared joy rather than self-gratification, from relationships with family and nation rather than a solitary lifestyle. Happiness is reflecting on my past, present and future, on being part of something larger than the 'I'.
The radical individualism that dominates today’s culture broadcasts a very different message and thus in a world that favors immediate results and instant gratification, such an outlook runs counter to its claims. Yet research shows that those that are ‘happiest’ are the ones who lead lives filled with purpose, meaning, volunteering, and dedication to something larger than themselves.
On Rosh Hashanah, our tefillot are expressed in the plural – we are praying not just for ourselves but our people and the world. We are part of a larger and bigger goal – the goal of mankind, of tikkun olam, of easing the pain and suffering of others. By reading Kohelet on Sukkot and entering the ‘vulnerable and temporary’ abode of the Sukkah and yet rejoicing in our season of happiness זמן שמחתינו, we are fulfilling the biblical imperative to share our joy and our material abundance with others:
“Rejoice in your festival, you and your sons and daughters; your male and female servants; the Levites; and the migrants, orphans, and widows living in your towns.” (Devarim 16:14).
By doing so we protest the existential hedonism found at the start of Kohelet and instead affirm that true joy is reaped from the fruits of shared experience and shared happiness. On Rosh Hashana we come face to face with our mortality. On Sukkot we affirm our choice of life, through finding joy in meaning and transcendence rather than hedonism and egocentricity.
Only when our life is shared and transcends the narrowness of the ‘I’ can it be a good and peaceful existence: בְּסֵפֶר חַיִּים בְּרָכָה וְשָׁלוֹם, וּפַרְנָסָה טוֹבָה , נִזָּכֵר וְנִכָּתֵב לְפָנֶיךָ אֲנַחְנוּ וְכָל עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים וּלְשָׁלוֹם
In the book of life and blessing, peace and good livelihood, may we be remembered and inscribed before You – we and Your entire people, the house of Israel, for a good life and for peace.
A second response is what we might call the ‘examined life’. One way of approaching the subject is inspired by the writing of my teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. In his book ‘The Jewish Way’ (chapter 6), he explains that intonations of death during the High Holydays should be used to harness death into a lifeforce. Part of maturing is to recognize our own limits and yet be creative beings within those limitations; face our mortality and choose an existence infused with life rather than death. Death in the liturgy is not just reference to physical death but also to a death-in-life. There are many people for whom existence is dead, and there are others who even in their death continue to live – through the legacy, meaning and values they bought to the world whilst alive. When Moses speaks to the people as they enter the land he says the following:
הַעִידֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ.
“I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life – so that you and your children may live (Devarim 30:19)
We each have before us the choice of life or death. How can this be? As Mishna Avot teaches us – the one thing we cannot choose is when we live or die. Indeed, we do not choose the time of our death or birth – what we choose is HOW we live whilst we are alive. Moshe tells the people – if you choose life, you do so not just for yourselves but also for all those that come after you. Because the life you create will be an everlasting legacy.
In the words of Rav Yitz Greenberg:
“Thus, our encounter with death in this period of the year will traditionally lead to one of three responses – existential hedonism, intense fear and guilt or affirmation of a life-infused existence. In our generation I believe the third option is the one that serves our religious consciousness the best and makes our prayers and rituals the most meaningful at this time of year.”
Martin Heidegger famously spoke about man’s existence as ‘being towards death’, by which he meant that any authentic expression of life will be infused with a fear of death. I would argue that the Jewish axiom would be “being towards life”. God calls us to live, to respond to the ‘ayeka’ call through imposing meaning on our reality, seeing the Torah as a manifesto for life-affirming action and answering the Divine call by taking small steps towards the messianic vision where we overcome death in all its manifestations.
During this time of year where we are called to respond to our Divine mission, we repeat a mantra of life: זכרנו לחיים מלך חפץ בחיים וכתבנו בספר החיים למענך אלוהים חיים
Remember us for life, King who seeks life, and write us in the book of life, for Your sake, God of life.
May we all be gifted with the inner strength and vision to choose life, even in the face of death, and to be inscribed in the book of life so that we can fulfil the Divine mandate of life here on earth.