24th Ellul – checking how we are living, ensuring we live on.

During Ellul we are expected to make a “Heshbon Nefesh” – literally an accounting of the soul.  It is a time for honest reflection, a time to look at what we have done, what we failed to do, what we have become as a consequence. The language of the Heshbon Nefesh is business-like – there is a sort of book-keeping element to it as we are reminded, in the words of Pirkei  Avot, that “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the payment is much, and the Master of the House is pressing.”

For some, weighing up a mitzvah against a missed opportunity to do a mitzvah, might be a sensible and comfortable way to proceed. But there are other ways to do this in our tradition, and my favourite is framed as Tzava’ah – the writing of an ethical will.

In order to really make a Heshbon Nefesh we need to clarify and explicate what truly is important for us, to think about our soul at the end of its earthly existence standing before the Holy One. The day is short, the work is great – and God waits to see what we make of our lives.

In the book of Genesis there is an interesting deathbed scene.  Jacob says to his long-lost son Joseph

אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי:

Translated usually as “Now I can die, for I have seen your face [and know that] you are indeed alive.”

Yet the Hebrew is not quite as clear as the translation would have us think – Jacob actually says “I can die this time” – as if there are many deaths in life, and this particular event is the latest in a chain of other deaths.

So what is Jacob really saying when he speaks of more than one death? There is a commentary on this verse that reads it as teaching that while everyone dies physically,  one may also die – or not die – spiritually.  How would one not die spiritually? By ensuring that one’s actions in the world help to sustain it, by leaving a legacy of values as well as of mitzvot, by telling stories that fix in the memory, by teaching others what is truly important in life so that they may use the guidance “b’shem omro” –recalling the memory of the person who helped them to understand.

When God speaks of Abraham just before the destruction of Sodom, God reflects on their relationship and says  (Gen 18:19)

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת־בָּנָיו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשֹוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

For I have known him in order that he may instruct his children and his household after him, to keep the ways of the Eternal to do צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט righteousness and justice.

The idea that Abraham must instruct (Tza’va’ah) his descendants with the values God wants them to have is particularly powerful in this context. Right now Abraham has only the promise of Isaac to be born, we are about to see a whole city – with parents and children – destroyed. But in this moment of potential and of uncertainty, comes the idea of passing on values into the future. And from here comes the notion of the ethical will (tzava’ah) ,  a document that would go alongside a will detailing what to do with possessions and physical objects of value, and instead detailing the ethics and values the you want your descendants or students or any reader of the document to know and to absorb them into the way they will live their life.

So what do we want to be remembered for? What do we want to pass on as good ethical guidance to those we love? What is the particular wisdom that means that passing it to the next generations we are ensuring we will die only physically, but not spiritually- for we will continue to exist in the stories, the memories, the values and the love the next generations will absorb from us.

Take some time to reflect not just on what we have or have not done, but what we would like to be remembered for, what legacy of memories and illustrative values we would like our lives to model. Writing an ethical will can be transformative, as it helps remind us of what we would like our lives to embody, and that reminder is the template against which our Heshbon Nefesh will be measured.

Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.