Choose Life: Embracing Existence in the Face of Mortality

by | Apr 22, 2015

“It’s all life until death.” Grace Paley

Rabbi Eliezer taught: “Repent one day before your death.” Rabbi Eliezer’s disciples asked him: Do we know on what day we will die? Then all the more reason that we engage in teshuvah (repentance) today lest we die tomorrow! In that manner, all our days will be transformed. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 153a) 

The call of life in the face of death is to be honest, true, and present. What Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi called the unlived life invites us to embrace, to complete, to reach. Since we know that we will die, but cannot know when, should we not make this day, which could be our last, as full and rich as possible? In this precious, finite time we have, we must seize joy, and savor it. We must be ourselves, for, as an acquaintance’s mother taught her echoing Oscar Wilde, “You might as well be yourself, because everybody else is taken.” We must clean up our messes, ask for, and grant forgiveness. We must follow our hearts, offer kindness and do the good we can.

Every life is incomplete

No matter how intentionally we live our lives, we can never complete every task, or reach every goal or potential. We learn this lesson quite poignantly from the biblical depiction of Moses. Moses, who dedicated the last third of his life to the project of redeeming his people from slavery, did not manage to reach the Promised Land with them. At the edge of the land, he was told that he would die in the wilderness, unable to enter the land, or even to he see his people enter it. Moses argued, cajoled, and begged to be allowed to see his dream fulfilled, but he was allowed only to glimpse the land from afar.

Like Moses, we will die with one, or many aspects of our lives unfulfilled. It is the nature of the human being to continually reach for more than we can grasp. If we have done everything we dreamed of, then we hope to live to see our children or dear ones fulfill their hearts’ desires. Eventually, we will be called to make peace with this, too. When we are very old, or very ill, we will come to realize that we will not be adding any more chapters to the book of our lives. We’ll find we need to grieve and accept what we didn’t accomplish, mend, or experience, if we are to have a sense of peace in dying. Meanwhile, keeping our mortality in mind can impel us to live with as much intentionality, goodness and zest as is humanly possible. We hold the paradox of living vividly, with death in view.


Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.

Listen, Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.

It is traditional to recite the Shema at bedtime, and also say the Shema when death is imminent. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught that the Shema is a way of practicing dying. He hoped, he told me, that by practicing saying “Adonai echad” with his exhalation, when the time came for his last breath, he would have these words on his tongue and heart. I am convinced that when he died recently, peacefully in his sleep at age 89, Reb Zalman’s last words were “Adonai echad.

Practice: Saying Shema

Make yourself comfortable in a sitting position. Inhale naturally through your nose, out through your mouth. As you inhale, say, Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu. As you exhale, say, Adonai echad.

As you inhale and exhale to say the Shema, imagine this is your last breath. You will no doubt have thoughts about what you will miss from your life, and about your regrets. Keep breathing. Bring compassion to yourself. Practice affirming, “I am at one with all life,” or, “I couldn’t be better,” or, “God is here, and everywhere.”

Do this practice every day. Notice how the thoughts and feelings that arise change. You may want to record these thoughts in a journal.

For more on this theme, see my newest book, Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife (Jewish Lights, 2015).