When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was.
Like every rabbi, I have attended to bereaved family members in almost every circumstance of death. Some deaths approach slowly and inevitably, like a train arriving across a plain with a distant horizon. Some deaths burst onto the scene like a balloon popping at a birthday party. Illness, accident, age, crime, self-infliction – mostly all they have in common is the finality of the result.
One set of experiences involved a woman who lost her mother to a protracted battle with cancer. Weeks of hospitalizations preceded the agonizing last days when life slipped away by inches. Some few years later, her father collapsed suddenly during a vacation and could not be revived. I asked her which was better – the chance to say goodbye, but watching her mother suffer, or the sudden loss of a vital presence in her life without the opportunity for a last moment. Her response: They both suck.
It is so like us as human beings to cast everything in terms of how it affects us. But what about the person facing death? Other than convicted perpetrators of capital crimes, no one among us knows the day of their death. There are plenty of pieces of advice about living as if today were your last day, but they, too, do not really imagine the impending moment.
(The best-known Jewish teaching: Repent one day before your death. And since no one knows the day of their death, repent today.)
I understand the impetus of people who face a proximate death to seek out pleasurable experiences. Whether it is a visit to an exotic place, a special meal, a sensual indulgence, time with loved ones or whatever, the focus on compacting experiences of life into an abbreviated timeline is understandable from people who cling to life.
But imagine being told the day you will die – maybe not the exact date, but the events that will point to the time your time will come. Imagine there will be no option for distraction, no diversion from the inevitable, no swerving off the road to finality. A cue will present itself: a horn will sound, a light will flash, a word will be spoken out of context or – as our case in point – you will arrive at your destination, see it and die. (For those unfamiliar with the reference in the verse, Moses was instructed to accompany his brother to the top of a hill, remove Aaron’s priestly vestments and place them on Aaron’s son. Aaron did not come down the hill.)
It is a cliché that when faced with mortal danger, your life passes before your eyes. Maybe it is true; the entire Book of Deuteronomy is a description by Moses of the events of his life since leaving Egypt in enough detail to last almost all of the 959 verses. But what would you discover?
I suspect (and I take the clue from this very verse) that I will stand before the evidence of what is left undone in my life. Not for lack of trying, not for lack of good intention, and not merely because there comes a time when any one life, including mine, will come to an end. Simply, the day after you die the sun will rise and set just as it did every day since you emerged into this world. Each of us is a part of things much larger than ourselves.
I am not making a case against mourning nor arguing for resignation at our inherently unfinishable lives. Instead, I am making a case for something just short of immortality. Leaving something incomplete makes it necessary for someone else – another life – to pick up where we left off. You likely won’t get to choose who that other life is, and you will have no control over the direction that other life takes. But every relinquishing facilitates a renewal.
For those left behind – the bereaved – loss and broken-heartedness is normal and necessary. With or without a chance to conclude a relationship, the empty space in the next-day’s world is a reminder of what has come to an end.
But I hope that on the day you will die, even if you love life as much as I do (which is a lot), you will discover what Moses did: that others are waiting to pick up what you left off and that, in that way, you are a participant in the fulfillment of the life you are about to surrender.
I usually have something political to say as part of these columns, and this one is no exception, so if you are satisfied with this little life meditation, stop reading now.
I have never been a fan of the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I can’t think of anything worse to suggest to a child who already has concerns about what lurks in the darkness, “if I should die before I wake…” The traditional bedtime ritual for Judaism includes a similar representation, though a little less ominous. But I get the intention. As Don McLean (almost) sang, “This [could be] the day that I die.”
Cultivating an awareness of work left undone ought to make someone a little conscientious about how to spend their day. But here’s the fact: the person whose energy is devoted to serving himself is likely to realize on the day he dies that the only work left undone is deconstructing what he left behind.