We don’t like to talk about it much, but one of the main themes of the High Holidays is death.
Why do we traditionally dress in white? Purity, your rabbi may tell you. Yes, that too, but mainly we do it to remind us of the white shrouds that will wrap our bodies in the grave. And why do we avoid food, drink, and other bodily pleasures on Yom Kippur? Because we want to enact a time in which we will no longer have a body. In these fateful days we are commanded to confront our mortality, to “live our own deaths,” as it were.
Before you accuse me of spoiling the festive holiday atmosphere, indulge me for a few moments more, because there is enormous wisdom in this grim idea.
We have all heard stories of people having near-death experiences that completely change their outlook on life. They learn the transience of material things, and they begin to focus, at least for a while, on what is most important. Life, and everything in it that we usually take for granted, becomes precious and rare. As it is with romantic partners—we fully appreciate them when we fear losing them—so it is with life itself. The High Holidays offer us a simulated near-death experience, sparing us the inconvenience of, for example, a plane crash.
But there is another lesson we learn while facing death. In the Roman Republic, victorious generals were awarded a “triumph”, a celebratory parade through the streets. Among the cheers of the crowd and the lavish praise of the senators, a slave stood behind the general. His task was to whisper in the hero’s ear, “Memento mori,” “Remember [that you have] to die.” Death served, then and always, as a spur toward humility, a reminder of our finitude just when we might start thinking, “I am a god.”
We don’t need to look to ancient Rome to find death as a teacher of humility; we find the same theme in our machzorim. In the High Holiday liturgy we chant, in haunting modal strains: “What are we? What are our lives?… The preeminence of man over the animal is nothing, for all is vanity,” and, even more poignantly, “Man’s beginning is from dust, and his end is into dust… He is like a broken clay pot… like a withered flower… like a wind that flies away… like a fleeting dream.”
Living our deaths forces us, for at least for a few days of the year, to be humble, to abandon our pretensions, to admit that we are all deeply flawed “like a vessel full of shame and villainy.” If during the year we live in arrogance and self-sufficiency, as in a Roman “triumph”, Rosh Hashanah is our memento mori.
Now, I had promised myself to avoid current events in holiday messages. This year, however, one analogy is too evident to dodge.
We are in the midst of the most ugly and uncivil internecine Jewish debate that I can remember. The fight over the “Iran deal” has brought out our darkest traits, our vilest impulses toward each other. Whatever fate the deal meets in Congress, the damage to the fabric of the Jewish community is already done.
At the root of this ugliness that turns Jew against Jew is a complete lack of humility. That arrogance has been demonstrated on both sides of the argument, as if each of us owned the unassailable truth, as if our opinion alone couldn’t be wrong. There has been no place for nuance, no room for doubt. People who can’t tell a centrifuge from a washing machine lecture Nobel Prize laureates. Ad hominem attacks have become commonplace. We had the nerve to accuse Senator Charles Schumer, who has devoted most of his life to serving his state and his country, of “dual loyalty.” We had the impudence to accuse General Ami Ayalon, a war hero and a former head of both Israel’s Navy and the Shin Bet, of being a coward. We demonized AIPAC for lobbying, as if that wasn’t an honorable democratic right, and we accused people that devoted their lives to Israel of being self-hating Jews.
Rosh Hashanah comes to remind us—brutally—that we are united in our mortality. It reminds us that we are dust. It demands that we abandon our comfortable certitude and contemplate death, the father of all mysteries. It demands from us to be humble, for we are just little people, with a lot to be humble about.
So how can this death-obsessed holiday be so joyful?
Teshuvah—repentance and introspection—is the secret. We indeed mimic death, but through teshuvah we are reborn; the last sound of the shofar after Yom Kippur announces the new beginning. Yes, we are mortal, but we are capable of greatness. We are capable of healing as much as destroying; we are capable of using our limited, yet still powerful, intelligence for kindness and understanding; we are dust, but we are also “slightly less than gods,” as Psalm 8 says. Living our deaths, we connect with what is precious in life. We learn to look at the world in radical amazement, and to be thankful for every gift we enjoy. Humility empowers us with the truest courage—the courage of those who can face their vulnerability and their imperfections.
On this Rosh Hashanah, we are in need of deep introspection. We need to cleanse ourselves from arrogance and atone for having driven the community into the abyss of hatred. We need to rediscover that we have only small and partial truths, for the absolute Truth belongs only to God. On these High Holidays, may we all be transformed by the experience of empowered humility. May we rediscover the infinite wonders of life, and may we tell death, “Not yet…” Because we still have to build a world of peace, compassion and joy.