The Examined Life

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks always felt that he was living on borrowed time, and that he would probably die at a very young age. In the words of his youngest child, Dina Sacks, “He always knew that he was running out of time, not believing that he would live past the age of forty.”

Rabbi Sacks saw the angel of death eyeball to eyeball four times in his life. In his early twenties, he almost drowned to death on his honeymoon in Italy. In his thirties, the rabbi’s first battle with cancer took place, a battle from which he recovered once again in his fifties, and to which he defiantly succumbed at the beginning of his eighth decade.

It is striking and noteworthy that another towering rabbinic sage whom we lost last year, the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, also struggled with ill health throughout his entire life, and was thus also intimately acquainted with the rapidly ticking clock of human existence.

Souls such as Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Steinsaltz are endowed with acute and pristine existential lucidity. They constantly remember and remind themselves that our brief sojourn as living beings on this earth is a mere handful of decades, after which “we are speedily gone, and fly away (Psalm 90).”

Like President Kennedy, whose favorite poem was Alan Seeger’s “I have a Rendezvous with Death,” and like Steve Jobs, who counterintuitively saw death as “the single best invention of life,” we should all ponder, from time to time, how we are spending our hurried sojourn on this earth, which the psalmist poetically depicts as a mere “fleeting shadow” upon the face of eternity.

Our parshah is named “Aharey Mot,” which literally means “After the Death of.” The word “death,” in various renditions, appears no less than three times in the opening two verses of our parshah. Although the parshah is specifically alluding to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, it also provides an instructive tutorial in spiritual prudence and existential accountability to us all.

It is not mere coincidence that the sages of old codified reading this parshah on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, a day of profound spiritual reckoning, during which we observe a radical suspension of our worldly needs and concerns in order to engage in methodic soulful scrutiny.

We read “Aharey Mot” both during the morning and afternoon services of Yom Kippur, thereby resensitizing ourselves to our looming mortality. We do so because in the words of Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

No modern thinker was more attuned to our looming mortality than Martin Heidegger. In his philosophical masterpiece, “Being and Time,” Heidegger argued that humanity spends the bulk of its time and resources desperately striving to flee and suppress our “Being-Toward-Death.”

According to Heidegger, this denial of death, which breeds an inauthentic and shallow existence, manifests itself in superficial talk about the lives of others (“idle chatter” in Heidegger’s words) and in our compulsive and cowardly attempts to impress “The They,” the invisible societal gaze of relatively marginal people in our lives.

The problem with suppressing our sheer finitude and temporality, implies Heidegger, is that it severs us from the profundity of our soul and from the sacred murmur of our untarnished inner core.

In Israel, when a funeral procession commences, the officiating clergy recites the following teaching from Ethics of the Fathers: “Know from whence you originate (from a drop of seed), where you are physically heading (to a place of dust, where worms consume the flesh), and before whom are you going to give spiritual accountability (before the Holy One Blessed Be He).”

Sooner or later, all of us will hear the very same haunting existential query which God-Almighty posed to Adam in the Garden of Eden, namely — “Ayekah/Where are you?”

Two superior minds of Sephardic Jewish ancestry, French essayist Michel de Montaigne and philosopher Jacques Derrida, both argued that the task of philosophy is “to learn how to die.” Judaism, by way of contrast, is a sacred and sustained tutorial in learning how to live.

But learning how to live also necessitates, from time to time, spiritually pondering the brevity of time at our disposal, at various junctures and intervals during the Jewish calendarial canon.

The reading of “Aharey Mot” on Yom Kippur is certainly one of these opportune and designated spiritual times. Make sure you show up for it in both body and soul.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sessler

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