Days of Awe

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I’m dedicating this piece to my dear friend David K. Cohen, who died on Wednesday morning, September 23rd, the day after I finished writing it. Everything I say about the sanctity of dying during this special period on the Jewish calendar applies to David as much as to RBG. He too battled against a multitude of ailments to which he refused to succumb. She had her army of law clerks. He had his legion of graduate students who adored him. He was a devoted husband to Magdalene, a loving father to Lisa and Sarah and an irreplaceable friend whose loss leaves a big hole in the universe. He knew how to take pleasure in being alive, an act he performed with gusto.  May his memory be a blessing.

There was a crowd milling around a house up the street from ours when I emerged on Yom Kippur morning. I was 8 or 9 and would soon be heading to shul with my father to begin the long haul till it was permissible to break the fast which had begun the previous evening. I wasn’t obligated to fast yet, not till I was past bar mitzvah age, but everything was cloaked in solemnity, even the brief moments when I was still permitted to eat

It was unusual to see so much activity on the street when people usually sense the seriousness  of the day and go directly from home to the synagogue. In the whispered game of telephone that our neighbors were playing, I learned that an old woman had died. I had seen her sitting on the bench in front of her house which, like almost all the others on the block, was an exact replica of our house – or vice versa. I didn’t really know anything about her, but at my age all old people were a bit scary and sinister. That probably wouldn’t have been the case if there had been grandparents in my life, but I didn’t know any of mine. One set was already dead before I was born and the other lived in a faraway country.

So much about Yom Kippur was connected to death. What could be more frightening for a child than the pronouncement in the day’s prayers that today was the day when decisions were inscribed about who would live and who would die:

who by fire and who by water… who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague…

It must be the case that someone who died on or around Yom Kippur must have done something really bad to be taken away on this ominous day. What might have been the sin that kept this scary old lady from being inscribed in the Book of Life for another year? For me the message was to be extra diligent in following the rules of the day – don’t turn the lights on or off, don’t listen to the radio, don’t rush out of the synagogue when the shofar blows to announce the end of the fast. Get off on the right foot in the new year by staying a bit longer to recite the evening prayers required once the holy day shifted to the ordinary.

AS the years have added up to their astonishing current number for me, the connections between this ten day period from the start of Rosh Hashana and the end of Yom Kippur which we call The Days of Awe have continued to carry this ominous connection to death. My own is ever more center stage. Every ritual and celebration carries a small tag that reads: Is this the last time? What’s faded from that superstition-driven view from my childhood is that death can be averted by being good, following the rules. Those beliefs have given way to a sense of the randomness of death, uncoupled from any acts, moral or otherwise on the part of the potential victim.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death at the very beginning of the Days of Awe resurfaced some of those childhood connections with death in this season and pointed up the absurdity of linking such a fate with any form of wrongdoing. So, it was helpful to receive this rabbinic interpretation that turns my early view of the links between death and the Yom Kippur season on its head.

“There is a beautiful teaching in our tradition that says that someone who dies in the days leading up to Rosh HaShanah is considered a special and holy person. The idea the Talmud teaches is that this person was destined to die during the preceding year, but that she was kept alive because she still had work to do, still could improve our world, until the very last minute. While we may not share the ancient rabbis’ views on our fate being sealed, the message resonates nonetheless. So, now we enter 5781 without the woman who embodied justice, courage, faith, and kindness. Now it’s our job to continue living her values. Through those, she lives forever. Zichrona Livracha, may her memory be for a blessing and an inspiration to work for good.”

RBG was destined to die for some time now, warding off cancer after cancer, but she stayed around because she still had work to do. Many of wish she had hung on a bit longer to avoid having her death used for nefarious purposes, but that is more than one could ask. Her death at this time is a call to action to those of us whose names ARE inscribed in The Book of Life to continue to pursue justice, just as she did in her blessed life.

I’m dedicating this piece to my dear friend David K. Cohen, who died on Wednesday morning, September 23rd, the day after I finished writing it. Everything I say about the sanctity of dying during this special period on the Jewish calendar applies to David as much as to RBG. He too battled against a multitude of ailments to which he refused to succumb. She had her army of law clerks. He had his legion of graduate students who adored him. He was a devoted husband to Magdalene, a loving father to Lisa and Sarah and an irreplaceable friend whose loss leaves a big hole in the universe. He knew how to take pleasure in being alive, an act he performed with gusto.  May his memory be a blessing.

There was a crowd milling around a house up the street from ours when I emerged on Yom Kippur morning. I was 8 or 9 and would soon be heading to shul with my father to begin the long haul till it was permissible to break the fast which had begun the previous evening. I wasn’t obligated to fast yet, not till I was past bar mitzvah age, but everything was cloaked in solemnity, even the brief moments when I was still permitted to eat

It was unusual to see so much activity on the street when people usually sense the seriousness  of the day and go directly from home to the synagogue. In the whispered game of telephone that our neighbors were playing, I learned that an old woman had died. I had seen her sitting on the bench in front of her house which, like almost all the others on the block, was an exact replica of our house – or vice versa. I didn’t really know anything about her, but at my age all old people were a bit scary and sinister. That probably wouldn’t have been the case if there had been grandparents in my life, but I didn’t know any of mine. One set was already dead before I was born and the other lived in a faraway country.

So much about Yom Kippur was connected to death. What could be more frightening for a child than the pronouncement in the day’s prayers that today was the day when decisions were inscribed about who would live and who would die:

who by fire and who by water… who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague…

It must be the case that someone who died on or around Yom Kippur must have done something really bad to be taken away on this ominous day. What might have been the sin that kept this scary old lady from being inscribed in the Book of Life for another year? For me the message was to be extra diligent in following the rules of the day – don’t turn the lights on or off, don’t listen to the radio, don’t rush out of the synagogue when the shofar blows to announce the end of the fast. Get off on the right foot in the new year by staying a bit longer to recite the evening prayers required once the holy day shifted to the ordinary.

AS the years have added up to their astonishing current number for me, the connections between this ten day period from the start of Rosh Hashana and the end of Yom Kippur which we call The Days of Awe have continued to carry this ominous connection to death. My own is ever more center stage. Every ritual and celebration carries a small tag that reads: Is this the last time? What’s faded from that superstition-driven view from my childhood is that death can be averted by being good, following the rules. Those beliefs have given way to a sense of the randomness of death, uncoupled from any acts, moral or otherwise on the part of the potential victim.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death at the very beginning of the Days of Awe resurfaced some of those childhood connections with death in this season and pointed up the absurdity of linking such a fate with any form of wrongdoing. So, it was helpful to receive this rabbinic interpretation that turns my early view of the links between death and the Yom Kippur season on its head.

“There is a beautiful teaching in our tradition that says that someone who dies in the days leading up to Rosh HaShanah is considered a special and holy person. The idea the Talmud teaches is that this person was destined to die during the preceding year, but that she was kept alive because she still had work to do, still could improve our world, until the very last minute. While we may not share the ancient rabbis’ views on our fate being sealed, the message resonates nonetheless. So, now we enter 5781 without the woman who embodied justice, courage, faith, and kindness. Now it’s our job to continue living her values. Through those, she lives forever. Zichrona Livracha, may her memory be for a blessing and an inspiration to work for good.”

RBG was destined to die for some time now, warding off cancer after cancer, but she stayed around because she still had work to do. Many of wish she had hung on a bit longer to avoid having her death used for nefarious purposes, but that is more than one could ask. Her death at this time is a call to action to those of us whose names ARE inscribed in The Book of Life to continue to pursue justice, just as she did in her blessed life.

In this season, Jews greet each other with the phrase G’mar Chatima Tova, which literally means “A good final sealing.” That final sealing refers to The Book of Life and is intended to provide insurance for the coming year. That is my wish for you.

In this season, Jews greet each other with the phrase G’mar Chatima Tova, which literally means “A good final sealing.” That final sealing refers to The Book of Life and is intended to provide insurance for the coming year. That is my wish for you.

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Marv Hoffman

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