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Confronting Mortality

on Friday, August 22 2014. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

It is remarkable how precious and cherished personal items can become “stuff” for someone else to get rid of literally overnight. After a BRS member recently passed away, I was visiting with a member of her family in her home when he shared that he had set aside items that are meaningful to him and proceeded to kindly offer me to take whatever I like for myself or for the Shul.

I looked around the room at the china cabinet, the bookcase and the paintings on the wall and was overwhelmed with the realization that just a week before, these were the precious possessions of this wonderful person and only a week later, they are now stuff, junk, things that need to be donated, given away, or even trashed.

It is said, you never see a U-Haul attached to the back of a hearse.   Our Rabbis teach that while you cannot take any of your possessions with you, you can take your acts of kindness and good deeds. Contact with the finality of death naturally elicits a sense of our own mortality and provokes thinking about what is truly important in life and how we should take advantage of every single day.

“Re’eh anochi nosein lifnechem hayom beracha u’kelalah.” Our parsha begins by telling us, “behold I have placed before you today blessing and curse.” This verse is traditionally viewed as expressing the concept of free will, of our ability to recognize that set before us are options of good or evil, right and wrong and that the choice is ours to make. However, I would like to suggest an alternative punctuation and meaning.

Re’eh anochi nosein lifnechem…hayom. Behold, I have placed before you…today, the concept of mortality. I have set before you a feeling of transience and impermanence. That feeling can be channeled in a number of ways, the pasuk continues. It can result in beracha, blessing, or it can result in kelala, in curse.

If we allow our feeling of vulnerability, of hayom, to bring us to a state of despair and of depression then it is kelala. If the recognition of our mortality makes us complacent, stagnant or content, it is a curse.

However, if our sense of being fragile and unstable, of hayom, causes us to take advantage of the moment for it may be fleeting, than we have turned it into beracha, for it has been the catalyst for change.

Indeed, Chazal, our Rabbis, have contrasted these two perspectives of hayom. On the one hand, they discourage us from approaching life with the attitude of echol, v’shaso, ki machar namus, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die. This attitude and interpretation of hayom leads to a hedonistic lifestyle. Recognition of our own mortality has for some become a license to be self-serving and pleasure seekers.  With this outlook, hayom, our vulnerability, is a curse.

But Chazal encourage us to say rather im lo achshav aimasai, if not now, when? Judaism teaches us to take our feelings of fragility and vulnerability and use them as springboards to grow, change and make a difference. A sense of mortality should encourage us to take advantage of every moment and to cherish every opportunity. Indeed, the Torah subscribes to an attitude of carpe diem, seize the day to contribute to society, positively affect other people and become a better spouse, parent or grandparent.

An awareness of just how unpredictable and volatile our lives can be must motivate us to stop procrastinating and take advantage of hayom, of right now. As we prepare to welcome in the month of Elul, let’s make a commitment to stop saying I will get to it later. This can truly be our best year ever, if we only say ha’yom, I am going to make it happen today.

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