The Talmud stipulates that if you hear of a devastating earthquake which killed multitudes of people, in some remote and distant corner of the world, then you should spiritually interpret this catastrophe and tragedy as an urgent call to self, to strive to grow in soul, and to undertake self-repairment, and self-transformation. In other words – to make Teshuvah.
Why does the Talmud argue that a tragedy which occurred to someone else, ought to be spiritually interpreted by us, as an event endowed with profound and urgent pertinence to our very personal existence and state of soul? Because not only “sin crouches at the door,” as the Torah states (Genesis 4:7), but also – death crouches at the door. “Death is a master from Germany,” wrote poet and survivor Paul Celan. Our looming mortality, our “being-toward-death,” argued philosopher Martin Heidegger, is the most foundational and central tenet of the human condition. In order to desperately flee the ticking clock of our ephemeral existence, we suffocate and existentially smother the murmur of our approaching mortality, teaches Heidegger, by absorbing ourselves in daily banalities, in the deafening and numbing pettiness of mundane errands, and what Kabbalist Isaac Luria deemed as “smallness of mind.” We are afraid to grow in soul and transform our ways towards the holy and the worthy, because we are psychologically rendered incapacitated by the menace of the invisible societal gaze of our peers, what Heidegger called “The They.” We prefer to drown what Heidegger called “The Call of Conscience,” with “idle chatter” – with empty vain superficial talk about celebrities, clothes, cars, kitchens, restaurants and vacations, about the external facade of life, rather than its permeating inner core and very essence.
The poem “I have a rendezvous with death” by Alan Seeger, was President Kennedy’s favorite poem. Because Kennedy, like Steve Jobs and Yoni Netanyahu, was one of these rarefied and acute souls, who was gifted with pristine existential lucidity. When we hear about the untimely and abrupt death of a well-known figure like Kobe Bryant and his daughter, our own soul is momentarily awakened from what Kant and Maimonides called our “dogmatic slumber,” our existential sleepiness. For a brief and cherished moment, we are no longer sedated by Netflix and social theatre and professional and familial challenges. We face, naked and vulnerable, our own approaching death, which could come today, tomorrow, or next year. A tragic death is tilting and cathartic, argued Aristotle in his work on tragedy, precisely because it sensitizes us to our own sheer finitude and temporality.
So what does the Talmud tacitly suggest to us about the death of Kobe Bryant? That the same thing could G-d forbid happen to me or to you tomorrow, in our cars, on the 405 freeway, G-d forbid. And therefore, ask not who died today, ask not in the immortal words of the English medieval mystic John Donne “for whom the bell tolls” today. In the words of a title of a novel by Saul Bellow, we should “Seize the Day,” and henceforth strive to live with profundity, intensity and vigor for the remainder of our lives. Do not existentially postpone the essence of your life and defer it to some opaque and distant future, which may or may not ever come. Do not defer the core of your existence to some cryptic tomorrow, and say – “I will grow in soul and Torah and prayerfulness and holiness when I retire, or when the kids go to college.” Don’t say, “I will take better care of my body, my relationship with my spouse and my children and grandchildren in years to come, when things are calmer and less hectic around here.” There may, or there may not be, as many years ahead of us to come, as we so naively and misguidedly seem to take for granted at times. Make these life changes now, and in the words of America’s leading self-help guru, Tony Robbins, now is the time to “Awaken the Giant Within,” to grow in body and soul, and to live the best and loftiest existence that you could possibly lead.