"Confronting our death to live our life"


Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio

“Confronting our death to live our life”

This is one of my favourite stories from my father in law:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson head off on a camping trip. They reach a beautiful spot in the wilderness and pitch their tent. They fish in the lake, catch their dinner and cook it over an open fire, toasting marshmallows for dessert. Soon they become tired and they head into their tent to go to sleep. In the middle of the night Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are looking at the sky and Sherlock Holmes says:

“Dr. Watson, when you look and see the stars what do you think?”

“Sherlock, I think of the vastness of the universe and our smallness, I think about the beauty of the world, I think about the miracle of creation and think about how I am filled with wonder.”

“That is interesting Dr. Watson, do you know what I think?”

“What Sherlock?”
“I think that someone has stolen our tent!”

When you look do you see the stars or the missing tent? Do you see the wonder of the universe and feel our smallness or do you notice the problems, the stains, the cracks in our world? There are times when we see the stars and times when we notice the tent and Yom Kippur is a time when we are called to see the stars, to contemplate the mysteries of life and the world in which we live, to feel the majesty of this moment and to feel awe and wonder, yet right in the midst of these lofty, sacred and holy moments we are brought crashing down to earth, in the most jarring way with the words of unetaneh tokef, the prayer which says “on Rosh Hashana it is written on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will pass on and how many shall come to be, who shall live and who shall die.” This prayer defines these days for many of us, we hear its words and we try to block out its harsh decrees, we turn away, we try and hide in metaphor but it is the stark truth of this poem, the raw emotion which infuses it, strikes at our hearts and the ultimate purpose of these days of awe. Yes we are to feel the greatness, to connect with the Divine but we are also called to understand our fragility, our impermanence, to confront our mortality. 


Our prayers say “this day is awesome and full of dread, the angels are trembling,” and so do we tremble as we gather in this place together. We confront our mortality and we feel the absence of so many. The chairs beside us which should be filled with those we love are empty, the yearning in our hearts to have them close to us again, the ache we feel at their loss, no matter how distant their deaths. We notice those who were here last year and are no more and we wonder at their decree: 

who by fire, who by water, 

who by cancer, who by leukemia

who by heart attack who by heartache

who by physical illness who by mental illness

who by their own hand, who by another’s hand 

who in old age, who at a young age

who by violence, who by gentle release

who with love, who with loneliness

who with suffering, who with peace

Today we face our own mortality and we wonder what fate will be inscribed for us, what is our destiny?

We come to the synagogue, dressed in our white robes, the shrouds of our death, we abstain from food and water and we look into the face of death, we stare into the abyss and we are changed. We confront our death and speak its name, we recognise our mortality and face the uncertainty of life so that we can learn the lessons of death and live a better life. Nothing can take away the pain of losing those we love but the liturgy of Yom Kippur asks us to face our mortality because by doing so we learn about how we can live so that when we reach the end of our days we will do so without regret.

But we live in a death denying culture. We speak of death and dying in euphamisms, she passed away, he has passed on, as if saying the word will make it real. We do all we can to retain our youth, to push away the ravages of time as if the outer can slow the reality of our mortality. We hide the dying from view, once people died at home, surrounded by family, friends, children, people saw death as a part of life. Now we don’t know what to say, we don’t know how to behave, what to do, we avoid death like a contagion rather than a natural part of living as if speaking it will make it true. But we need to speak it, confront it because when we do, it can help us to live a better life. 

Matthew O’Reilly was in his first weeks as an emergency specialist he was called to the scene of a motorbike accident, he sat on the bitumen with a young man, clutching his hand knowing that there was nothing that could be done to save him.

“Am I dying?” the man asked

Matthew did not know what to say, what to do, should he give hope or tell the truth? He opted for the truth
“Yes, you are going to die”

He said by speaking the truth the man’s face radiated a sense of acceptance and peace, he breathed deeply, closed his eyes and died. In that moment speaking the truth allowed the man to let go to be. He did not hide from death but instead acknowledged its presence and held a dying man in his embrace. 

Confronting death can help us to live when we speak the words.

Sally was agonizing over how to tell her seven year old son that she was dying. Despite being ill and frail she went to a seminar run by a leading psychologist to find out what to say, if she should tell her boy, she came home armed with her new knowledge, called him into the room and said “Derek, I have something to tell you.” “Oh mummy is it now you are going to tell me that you are dying?” She held him close and they both cried, “yes” after a few minutes the little boy climbed out of her lap, “I have something I have been saving for you.” He went to the back of his drawer, pulled out a dirty pencil box and inside was a note in his child like scrawl, “goodbye mum, I will always love you.” How long had he been waiting for the truth? How long to speak the words he wanted to say? Two days later his mother died and in her casket was a small pencil box and a note. We must speak about death so we can find the time to say what we want to say to one another, to be there together.

We need to confront our mortality, to go to the abyss and look into the eyes of death so that we can learn how to live. On Yom Kippur we read about how small we are, how insignificant, our prayers say: “our origin is dust and dust is our end, with life we earn our bread. Like pottery we break, like grass we wither, like a flower we fade, we are a passing shadow, a dissipating cloud, blowing wind, scattered dust, a dream that flies away.” Our days are numbered and we do not know how many we will have but we don’t live with that awareness, instead we pretend, build a façade, believe we can change the decree if we don’t speak its name. But we cannot. We are vulnerable, fragile human beings, dreams floating on the wind into eternity. We cannot write ourselves into a different book, we cannot will the cancer to go away, shrink the tumor with our prayers but we can temper the decree, we can change the way we approach the abyss. We can learn from the dying, from encounters with death how to live our lives.

On Yom Kippur when we confront our death it can help us to live when it helps us recognise what is really important. It was Timothy’s first day as a doctor and he met Harold a 68 year old man who was having headaches and found himself in emergency. The tests revealed that he had cancer which had spread to his brain. Timothy was given the task of telling a man and his family that he was dying. He was terrified, how would he approach the family, what would he say?  He hoped he would be able to find the words. He walked into the room.

“It’s not good news is it sonny?” said Harold

“No I am afraid it is not, you are dying.”

They talked for a while then Timothy said: “Harold, what has meaning to you, what do you hold sacred?”

He said “my family.”

“And what do you want to do?”

He slapped his knee “I want to go fishing!” 

Harold went fishing the next day, spent time with his family and a week later he died. 

On Yom Kippur when we confront our death it can help us to live when we see the simple pleasures are the most important, going fishing, being with the people we love. Yet we do not live our lives that way, we chase titles, money and fame. Bronnie Ware in her book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” lists working too hard and not living true to themselves as two of the greatest regrets of the people she met during her days as a palliative care specialist. When King David is old and advanced in years, he is in his bed shivering, unable to be warmed or comforted, the Torah says: “Now King David was old, advanced in years.” A chapter later when he is dying it says: “David was dying.” King David becomes David, we are all equal in death, the titles do not matter, how many hours we work, whether we met our kpis what is important comes into sharp relief. 

On Yom Kippur when we confront our death we learn how to live when we understand that work is not who we are. Gill Hicks boarded a train in London in 2005 and stood in the same carriage as the bomber. He detonated his weapon of destruction, 26 people in her carriage died and she lay, unable to move, her legs blown off in a pitch black carriage. The surviving passengers calling out to one another “I’m Gill, I’m here, I’m alive.” “I’m Allison, I’m here, I’m alive.” “I’m Richard, I’m here, I’m alive” regularly checking in with each other, willing one another to survive. She fought the urge to close her eyes, to give in to the release of oblivion. She held on for an hour and she wrote “An hour to contemplate the whole of my life up to this point. Perhaps I should have done more. Perhaps I could have lived more, seen more. Maybe I should have gone running, dancing, taken up yoga. But my priority and focus was always my work. I lived to work. Who I was on my business card mattered to me. But it didn’t matter down in that tunnel.”

On Yom Kippur we confront death and we learn how to live when we change our lives to place at the centre what really matters. At Rosh Hashana we read about Isaac, he too looked death in the eye as his father Abraham wielded the knife ready to take his life. Isaac was spared but confronting death changes a person. When we read about Isaac in the years afterwards we find that he is different from his father and son, he lives life with different priorities. We are told of him that he loved his wife Rebecca. They are the only couple about whom the Torah speaks of a love relationship. Isaac knew how important his family was and he held them close, he loved them, gave them time and his presence. He and Rebecca played, they found time for matters other than work, they understood what was important and he found balance. And when confronted by enemies who wished to take his possessions, he handed them over. Unlike his father he did not go to war, he did not fight, he knew that it was not about material goods, acquiring more, but rather creating relationships, making connections. The beauty is found not in the big moments on the world stage but rather in the day to day. Isaac and Gill confronted their deaths and they changed their lives, today we confront our deaths and we have the opportunity to change our lives. 

On Yom Kippur when we confront our death it can help us to live life when we find the courage to live our truths. Christine Holgate’s sister died after a long illness and she promised that she would dress her body for the funeral. She did not want to do it but she had promised so she went into the room where her sister lay and she noticed her brother in law, stroking his wife’s hair, talking softly to her. She said: “here was a man who did not see the emaciated body that had gone through hell, he saw the 23 year old woman that he’d married and he’d loved. I knew then I had to change. I knew watching him, if I was not careful I was going to live a life where sure, I might have a great career and travel around the world and do all these things but I may not have ever really allowed anyone to love me properly. And I might not have spent time doing something which was inside of me that calls for social responsibility. That was the moment I kind of knew I had to change.” On Yom Kippur when we confront our death it can help us to live when we find the courage to live our truths. One of the five regrets of the dying is not living true to who they are, worrying about others’ expectations, living the way others determined rather than what is in their hearts, let us learn not to have that regret.  

On Yom Kippur when we confront our death we learn how to live when we heal our relationships, make peace with those around us and speak our feelings. Charlie lay dying and he was worried about his son, he said to Bronnie, his palliative care nurse. “My son Greg, works ridiculous hours at a job he hates, raising children who never see him, looking after me even when I did not need it and I don’t really know why. He is always trying to prove himself, to show that he did more for me than anyone else.” 

“Does he know you love him?” she asked

“I suppose so, I always compliment him when he does a good job, he knows I am proud of him.”
“But how does he know, do you ever tell him?”

“Not directly,” said Charlie, “but he knows.”

A few days later they spoke again

“Bronnie,” said Charlie, “do you think I need to tell Greg I love him?”

“Yes I do, he needs to hear it.”

“I am scared, I know it is ridiculous, I am 78 years old and I am scared to tell my son I love him.”

A few days later Bronnie went into Charlie’s room, he and Greg had bloodshot eyes, tears streaming down their faces, “Bronnie, I want you to know too,” said Charlie, “I love this man with all my heart, he is a good son and a great man…there is nothing he needs to prove, nothing he needs to do or have to become a better person. I love this man sitting here completely. And being his father has brought my life great joy.” Charlie’s goodbye gift to his son was speaking his truth, sharing what was in his heart. But it does not have to be a final gift, it can be a gift for now, for here, for every day. Confronting our death can teach us how to live when we turn to those around us with love and say what is in our hearts, heal our relationships. 

Confronting death teaches us how to live when we understand that we do not have forever and don’t put off until tomorrow what we could do today. According to tradition we are to recite the shema before we die. The rabbis ask, how can we know when we are going to die? They answer we can’t so we recite it every day, a way to touch eternity, to recognise the fragility of life, the tenuous hold we all have on living, to recite the words which make peace with those who have hurt us or who we have hurt, to stop and appreciate the small moments. When you look out onto the abyss, when you stand at the edge and realize that at any moment you could be a whisper in the wind, the dust floating on the breeze, when you turn back to the world it looks different, the colours are brighter, you capture the moments. King Solomon asked for something which would make him happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. His advisor scoured the world and returned with a piece of paper and on it was written: “this too shall pass.” Usually this phrase is used to give hope when facing darkness, that the pain, the struggle, the suffering will pass, but perhaps the more important message is to understand it in the times of joy. That this joy too will pass so hold onto the moments, etch these good times in your memory, be there and appreciate it for tomorrow it may be gone. Tim Urban said, “happiness is the joy you find in a series of forgettable Wednesdays.” And if we can find the joy in the forgettable Wednesdays then we have learned to live well, without regret.

When we confront our death we learn how to live. On Yom Kippur we confront our death, we face into the abyss and we recognise our fragility, our smallness in the vastness of time, we see that we are a fleeting dream. But then we turn back to life, changed and renewed, we learn how to live true to ourselves, to see what is really important, to find ways to live without regret and to allow the missing tent to help us see the stars.

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