With the High Holidays approaching, matters of life and death are naturally on our minds. The prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur revolve around life; as the Talmud says, these days are uniquely solemn because the “Books of the Living and the Books of the Dead are open” as we stand in judgement before the Almighty.
Some may find the Days of Awe overwhelming, or struggle to connect to such serious holidays. But the truth is that the awe of the Days of Awe is a great gift. It is what spurs us to action. It is what focuses our minds on the important questions and leads us to consider how and where we need to make changes. The season of judgment is also the season of repentance and is when we can achieve tremendous growth.
In fact, there are many parallels between the end-of-life experience and the High Holidays. It is surely no accident that there are many shared customs and traditions between the two. On Yom Kippur, men wear a kittel, the pure white garment in which we are buried. Just before a person’s soul departs, it is customary to recite the same verses with which we conclude the prayers on Yom Kippur.
And like the High Holidays, the end of life also has a way of spurring us to actions that we might have delayed for too long and to ask and answer questions that we are always too busy to consider. Like the High Holidays, we do not have to wait until the end of life to discover these things, but having arrived there, it would be a shame not to take advantage of the opportunities it offers.
It is unfortunate but true that for many of us, the simplest words can be the hardest words to say. Here are some simple words that can change lives forever:
Thank you. This, together with “I love you,” is the most common sentiment I hear people share at a loved one’s bedside. Capturing our true feelings for a lifetime of kindness might be impossible. But how often do we really express our thanks to those who have done the most for us? When do we acknowledge how much our lives have been shaped by someone else’s? We need to say this for ourselves as much as for the recipient of our thanks.
I’m proud of you. This one is especially for parents. Our children crave hearing this from us, and no matter how old or accomplished they are, knowing their parents are proud is still one of the most fulfilling feelings they can have. We should learn to say and convey this sense long before the end of life, but we also should not delay until it is too late.
Please forgive me. I had the privilege of taking care of a relative toward the end of his life. One day, he received a diagnosis which, he understood, meant that his time left was limited. Once he absorbed the news, he took one deliberate action, as if he had been planning it for years. He picked up the phone and called a relative from whom he had been estranged. He asked forgiveness and provided his in return.
Asking for forgiveness is never easy, especially when there is plenty of blame to go around. But the end of life gives us the urgency we need to make things right. Before Yom Kippur, it is customary to ask forgiveness of those we have wronged. Facing life and death has a way of putting things in perspective. Whatever feelings of hurt we have carried with us, the end of life, like the High Holidays, gives us the chance to see that our relationships are more important than the grievances we nurse. It opens the door for healing and for affirming the positive. If not now, when?
The Sages advised us to repent one day before we die. Of course, nobody knows when that day will be and we must therefore repent every day. But when we do have a sense that the time is coming nearer, repentance becomes a great gift. As on the High Holidays, repentance involves taking stock of what we have done, regretting our mistakes, acknowledging them, and resolving to do better. It involves taking steps toward fixing what we can. And as on the High Holidays, repentance is not only about guilt; it is about moving forward positively and becoming more of the person we want to become.
By Rabbi Daniel Rose
Rabbi Daniel Rose is the rabbi for Jewish Hospice Services for Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care. He is also the assistant rabbi at Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation in Baltimore.