As I write, I am mourning the loss of my dear colleague, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who died Aug. 31 from brain cancer. It is no exaggeration to say that she birthed several of the most influential innovations in contemporary Jewish spirituality, including the Jewish healing movement, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and and Wise Aging.
I had the good fortune to work in some of the spaces that she helped to create. Without her leadership, I could not have done the rabbinic work I have had the privilege to do. And she did it all with a remarkable combination of grace, wisdom and humility. As a dear mutual friend wrote, “she left a legacy of love everywhere.”
As I return to my writing about Parashat Vayeilech, for this Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), I see that the portion is very much concerned with death and human finiteness.
With great poignancy, Moshe reminds the people that God has commanded that he not lead the people into the land. The time has come for him to prepare for his death, turning over the reins of leadership to Joshua. Anticipating the transition, Moshe calls out to the people with words of encouragement and farewell: “Be strong and of good courage.” Later, Moshe shares the same blessing with Joshua, his successor, who will complete the journey that Moshe began.
I imagine this as a time of deep self-reflection for Moshe, as I have often seen in people who know that death is near. When we cannot deny the fact that we and everyone we love will eventually die, we can be graced with a poignant gratitude for life, clarity about priorities, and deep desire to live our remaining time as fully and lovingly as we can.
The Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe, or High Holidays) can function in much the same way. The beloved and troubling prayer “Unetaneh Tokef” forces us to confront the fact that we cannot know “who shall live and who shall die” — who will be alive next Rosh Hashanah and who will be gone.
The Shehechiyanu blessing that we recite over holiday candles and at Kol Nidre services can fill us with powerful gratitude for the blessing of life, as we give thanks for the precious gift of living to greet a new year.
The imagery of Ne’ilah (the final, closing service at the end of Yom Kippur) powerfully evokes the sense of the finiteness of time. In the final hour of the fast, urgency drives us to bring as much kavanah (intention) and open-heartedness as we can muster to our prayer.
Among the many things that may motivate us to our own teshuvah (repentance) work, none is more powerful than the fact of mortality. When death crosses our path, our illusion that our time is unlimited is shattered. When that truth stands at the front of our consciousness, we automatically want to to use our time well, to be kinder, to be the best person we can possibly be. Until things go back to “normal.”
I am reminded of the rabbinic dictum “Repent the day before you die” (Avot 2:15). When the Talmud (Shabbat 153a) describes the scene of Rabbi Eliezer teaching this principle, his students respond with the predictable cry of confusion. “But Rabbi, they say, do we know the day of our death?” The sage responds, “That is precisely why we must repent today, lest we die tomorrow. In so doing, all of our days are spent in the process of teshuvah (repentance).”
So, too, I think of the statement attributed to Buddha: “Life is so hard. How can we be anything but kind?” When we recognize the reality of human suffering, the less important concerns that normally direct and control us are washed away. We want to immerse ourselves in things that matter. Time is short, and we want to use it well.
May we be spared the pain of too much loss in the new year. May we be guided to remember that, indeed, our time is short and precious. May we remember to fill it with as much kindness, gentleness and wisdom as we can.