The Final Accounting
At the intersection of morality and mortality
Please accept my apologies for not posting last week, but I was preoccupied with the dress rehearsal for my death.
That is one apt description of the Jewish High Holy Days (not holidays – at least not in the Hallmark sense). If you grew up in the South, you likely remember them as those mysterious times in the fall when all the department stores closed on weekdays. On Rosh Hashanah, the new year, we greet our friends and welcome the new year for about a minute before turning our attention to more somber concerns: Our sins, our shortcomings, our failures, and our fate. The new year begins a 10-day period of contemplation that culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day of fasting and intense praying to the Master of the Universe to forgive our sins and allow us to continue living in spite of them.
The motif of death is impossible to miss. Traditionally men wear a kittel, a simple white garment that represents humility – and also, not coincidentally, looks exactly like the traditional shroud in which Jewish men and women are buried. During the all-day pray-athon, we recite ominous prayers like this one, previewing what an all-powerful God might decree:
“Who will live and who will die,
Who will perish by fire and who by water,
Who by sword and who by beast
Who by hunger and who by thirst
Who by earthquake and who by plague…”
To quote Samuel Johnson, "When a man knows he is to be hanged...it concentrates his mind wonderfully." You don’t have to believe in a literal deity judging humanity to get the point: It is time to hold ourselves accountable for our individual deeds and words and, in Jewish practice, for those of our whole community as well.
The Annual Checkup
It’s your annual moral checkup. Have I used my time wisely? Have I treated friends and family with love and kindness? Have I treated strangers with respect and dignity? What have I done lately to make the world better?
I have participated in this annual ritual all my life, and I find as I age that it strikes ever closer to the bone. Death by fire, plague, or drowning do not seem nearly as abstract in a world of raging wildfires, killer hurricanes, and Covid. Death from any cause is not so distant. The ritual reminds me that my time roaming the top side of the earth is finite and diminishing.
For me, accountability revolves mostly around (being less curmudgeonly and) questions of purpose. Do I really understand what my purpose is? How well am I fulfilling it? If I were to die next week, what would people say about my life? How will I be remembered, if at all? Will I leave a legacy? Does any of this matter?
These questions defy simple answers, and my tentative answers change from year to year. And while I don’t recommend a 25-hour fast and a 10-hour prayer session for everyone, I do think that regardless of your religious persuasion – or lack of one – there’s much to be said for doing a gut check of your own moral compass periodically. All of us try. None of us is perfect. But there is comfort and hope in accepting our failings and going on in spite of them, trying always to do a little bit better.
My hope is that going through annual dress rehearsals will prepare me to the greatest degree possible for the final performance.
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