Contemplating Dying

by | Oct 28, 2013

The origin of the human being is dust, her end is dust. He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower; she is like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away.

—High Holy Day liturgy, translated by Reuven Hammer

This passage, from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, invites us into an extended contemplation of our mortality. The prayer includes stark images of the human lifetime: we are as evanescent as dust that scatters, dry grass that disintegrates, flowers that wither, shadows that pass, breezes that blow, and dreams that fly away.  On Yom Kippur, we not only contemplate death, we practice dying, abstaining for 25 hours from food, water, sex and physical pleasure, and dressing in simple white like the shrouds in which Jews are traditionally buried. We are drawn into encounter with our mortality precisely to inspire us to live our limited days as well and fully as we possibly can. With death in mind, we may be brave enough to face our failings, and resolve to turn toward our truest, best selves. This does not mean, however, that it is not terrifying to glimpse the finitude of our own lives.

A Talmudic discussion on death features a funny, and heartbreaking series of vignettes about famous rabbis and their endeavors to evade the Angel of Death. One rabbi insisted that it would be inappropriate for him to be taken while in the act of eating the sacrificial meat. Another argued that it would be undignified for him to come to his end in the marketplace. A third rabbi begged for 30 days’ respite so that he could complete his studies; when the Angel of Death later appeared at his home, he asked, “What’s the hurry?”  Clearly, even the greatest sages resist the reality of their lives’ finitude.[i]

“All the world is just a narrow bridge, and above all is not to fear completely.” Reb Nachman does not actually instruct us not to fear, but rather, not to be swallowed up by it. As long as we have breath, we are attached to our life. It would not be reasonable to be unafraid about dying. We can, however, proceed despite fear; this is the definition of true courage. We can hold awareness of our mortality without either obsessing or giving up.

Looking back—with compassion

Try this: Sit in a quiet, comfortable place. Give yourself some expansive time. Settle yourself into your spot, notice your feet resting on the floor, your body supported by your chair. Breathe deeply but naturally. Imagine that today is the last day of your life. With compassion and gentleness, ask yourself:

  • What about my life am I proudest of? Is it a professional accomplishment? The way I raised my children? The kindness I showed to my friends? The beauty I never took for granted?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • Which of my past actions do I regret?
  • What experience or adventure am I deeply sorry to have missed?
  • What do I wish to pass on to my children or others who will follow me?

Take some time to you reflect on these questions.  If you like, jot some notes in a journal. This simple life review affords us a perspective on our lives to this point. As you contemplate the blessings and disappointments of your life so far, try to do so with compassion. Give yourself credit for your strivings and your limits, your glories and your flaws. This process of looking back can also help us to look ahead to shape our futures.

[i] Babylonian Talmud Moed Katan 28a.