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Yom Kippur: Dying So We May Live

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Everything that is born, dies. We acknowledge our mortality, but should we give it much thought? The Spanish philosopher de Unamuno wrote that the syllogism that used to be taught in logic classes: Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore Socrates is mortal, sounds very different when rendered: I am a man; all men are mortal; therefore I will die.

For Unamuno, as for all existentialist thinkers, death is the great, unavoidable question. From death flows the urgency and responsibility of life.

Not every thinker agrees. Spinoza wrote that a wise man thinks of nothing less than death. Spinoza spun his ideas from the eternal stratosphere of reason and logic. He believed that philosophy, like logic, mathematics and reason, all transcend accidents of birth and death.

Yom Kippur is a powerful existentialist statement. In its best known prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef, we are reminded that we are fleeting, that our lives are like the wind that blows, like the flower that fades, as a passing shadow. On Yom Kippur we dress in white. It has connotations of purity, because white shows the slightest stain. But the deeper reason is that a robe is reminiscent of the shrouds in which we will be buried. We emulate corpses: not eating, not drinking, freed of the body. This will one day be our fate.

With deep psychological acuity, Freud's words spring from just this tradition: "We recall the old proverb, if you want to preserve peace, arm for war. Well, if you want to endure life, prepare for death." Yom Kippur, when we remove ourselves form the world for a day, reminds us that one day the world will get along without us. We prepare for death to more powerfully return to life.

The daily whisper of mortality grows to a roar on this holiest day. While we pray to be granted one more year we look around the synagogue. Some who were there last year, for many years past, are no longer with us. The empty seat or the new occupant brings the shock of unpleasant recognition: One day, each person knows, she or he will be that missing worshiper.

Judaism asks us to grasp both ends: We know we will die, and therefore should savor all that life offers. Our time is given vividness and urgency by being limited. Love is more precious knowing the sun will set.

One of the most famous Rabbis of the last century was Rabbi Israel Kagan, known as the "Chofetz Chaim" (literally, the one who desires life, so named for his works on proper speech, after the phrase in Psalm 34:12). One day a group of tourists from America, traveling in Eastern Europe, went to visit the famous Chofetz Chaim in his town of Radun. When they came to see him they saw the world famous Rabbi in a small study with a rickety desk and a few books.

One of the incredulous tourists said, "Rabbi, where is all your stuff?"

The Chofetz Chaim smiled, "Where is all yours?"

"But" the man answered, "we are just passing through."

The Chofetz Chaim nodded, "Me too."

To live with an awareness of death is to live in gratitude for the realization that we are passing through. At moments it feels like we have forever. Yet we know it is not so. Yom Kippur arrives to remind us that time is limited. We beat our chests, the Jewish defibrillation, to revive our hearts, to awaken ourselves to our own swift passage. Today, though, on this day, it is our privilege to be alive. Let us repent, renew and live the time we are lucky to have with vividness, brio, goodness and in gratitude to God.

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