Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
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My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleague’s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37. N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldn’t be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesn’t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of N’s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
Have you begun thinking about the high holidays yet? Do they usually seem to appear out of the mess of end-of-summer-start-of-school-year and you find yourself trying to catch your breath on the way to services? Wouldn’t it be nice to take a moment now and reflect on the coming new year? Enter Jewels of Elul:
As stated on their website, “There is a great Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days in the month of Elul to study and prepare for the coming high holy days. The time is supposed to challenge us to use each day as an opportunity for growth and discovery.
..For the past seven years I have collected short stories, anecdotes and introspections from some fascinating people.
We have collected these Jewels of Elul, from an eclectic group of people including President Barack Obama, Eli Winkelman, Desmond Tutu, the Dali Lama, Sarah Lefton, Eli Wiesel, Deepak Chopra, Pastor Rick Warren, Kirk Douglas, Rev. Ed Bacon, Rabbi David Wolpe, Ruth Messinger, Jeffrey Katzenberg and over 100 other inspired voices . . . well known and not so well known.
I invite you to make each day count. Join us is preparing for this most sacred time of year.
To sweet, inspired Holy Day of change.
I think this is a wonderful way to begin the new year, and encourage you to sign up for the daily emails, or purchase the booklet of all 29 which will benefit the work of a not-for-profit interfaith cultural center in Los Angeles. Learn more here.
I admit it – I was raised to think that intermarriage is wrong. It has taken awhile but I now am embarrassed by some of the comments I might have made when friends told me they were marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. I was insensitive. On this Yom Kippur, I want to ask for forgiveness from those whom I have offended. In many instances, I may not have said anything, but the negative thoughts crossed my mind and an expression of disapproval may have crossed my face. Again, I apologize.
In my defense, we all are evolving. We all say things that might have been inappropriate. I don’t lose sleep over insensitive comments I may have made 10 years ago. I was young. I was immature. I am not perfect. I try not to let guilt consume me, but there is a fine line between being conscientious and guilt ridden!
But here is something I hadn’t thought of until a few months ago: Our comments leave scars. I know that I offended some people and that they remember my comment or look of disapproval. So, even though I have evolved, I may have hurt their feelings and I suspect they still remember it. In fact, my act of disapproval may be the last (and only) thing they remember about me. Who was I to judge?
This reminds me of the old Kabbalah story where a child says bad things about someone to a friend. Madonna and Loren Long have rewritten this story for today’s family in Mr. Peabody’s Apples. In this story, Mr. Peabody is an elementary school teacher and baseball coach, who one day finds himself ostracized when a child misinterprets an incident and then spreads rumors through their small town. Mr. Peabody silences the gossip by teaching the child how we must choose our words carefully to avoid causing harm to others. The child is told to take a pillow to the baseball field and tear it open. The wind is blowing and all of the feathers fly everywhere. Mr. Peabody asks the child to collect the feathers and put them back in the pillow. The child tells him that it is impossible. Like feathers in the wind, we can’t put our words back in our mouths.
Since we can’t take our words or acts back once they are out there, this Yom Kippur I want to say:
1) I apologize for any words, actions or thoughts that may have been insensitive.
2) To anyone who might have offended me, I forgive you and know that we are all evolving. Hopefully, we can all evolve a little faster before we hurt anyone else’s feelings.
I wish for all of us that our personal journeys take us to a place of kindness and understanding. Happy New Year. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Not long ago I was sitting at my computer playing around on the Internet and I found myself at deathclock.com, which bills itself as “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away … second by second.” All you have to do is enter your date of birth, your gender, your “mode” (whether you’re normal, pessimistic, sadistic or optimistic), your height and weight, and your smoking status. Then you click a button that says “Check Your Death Clock” and it calculates your date of death.
I didn’t put in my information to “check my death clock.” I was so freaked out by the thought of knowing my date of death (or at least what deathclock.com predicted as my date of death) that I quickly left the website, and promised myself I’d never go back again.
But the reality is that even though I don’t want to know WHEN I’m going to die, I do have to accept the fact that I AM going to die. Rabbi David Wolpe tells the story of a man at age 93 who continues to be comforted by the consoling words that his mother had said to him while lying on her deathbed, seventy years earlier: “Don’t be afraid. It happens to everyone.”
It’s a fact of life. …We’re all going to die.
And while I may never go back to deathclock.com, the reality of my mortality is something that I can’t avoid thinking about this time of year. Confrontation with death is one of the significant themes of the Jewish High Holy Days, and especially of Yom Kippur.
On Yom Kippur, some Jews wear a white kittel (burial shroud) over their clothing, which serves as a reminder of our mortality. And in synagogue on Yom Kippur, Jews confront death when we recite the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, describing “who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out his days and who shall not live out his days.”
What I love about Yom Kippur is that this “confrontation with death” isn’t morbid or creepy. Rather, we confront death so that we can be more fully present in life. When we recognize and acknowledge that life is precarious, we realize how truly precious it is.
Every year at this time I ask myself: What would I do if I were going to die tomorrow? How would I live my life? How would I treat the people I love? Is there someone to whom I would apologize? Is there someone with whom I’ve lost touch who I want to reconnect with? I try to use the answers to questions like these to inform how I act during the High Holidays and in the year ahead.
These questions and others that help us to become better people and lead more meaningful lives are ones that we should all be asking ourselves throughout the year. And for Jews and those who are part of Jewish families, they are questions on which we should especially focus this time of year.
Hopefully, all of us can use our answers to the question “What would I do if I were going to die tomorrow?” to inform how we live TODAY.
What about you? Are there questions you’ve been thinking about this time of year? I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.
According to a website called statisticbrain.com, the top five New Year’s resolutions people made for 2012 were:
When calculated for types of resolutions, they found that 47% of resolutions made were related to self-improvement or education; 38% were related to weight; 34% were related to money; and 31% were related to relationships. (The total comes out to over 100% because people made multiple resolutions.)
Like most Americans, I make New Year’s resolutions in December (or, in years that not procrastinating doesn’t make my list, I sometimes make them in January). And this time of year, in the Jewish month of Elul, I also engage in making resolutions.
Elul is the month that leads up to the Jewish new year, and it is the month in which Jews are supposed to be involved in the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul – our spiritual preparation for the new year. It is a time to look inside of ourselves and engage in the process of teshuvah. Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance” but it literally means “turning” – we seek to turn toward wholeness in our relationships with others in our lives, with God and with our true selves.
When I make my resolutions in the month of Elul (this year Elul occurs from August 7 – September 4), unlike in December, my resolutions aren’t about being thinner, healthier, wealthier and happier (not that I would mind any of those things!). Instead, I make resolutions about how I will relate to my family, friends and community and how I will engage in the world. I contemplate not just my physical wellbeing, but more important, my spiritual wellbeing.
One of the great things about the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh is that it’s something that everyone can do, regardless of their own faith tradition or lack thereof. (I don’t know of any religion or culture that wouldn’t encourage individuals to look inside of themselves and contemplate ways that they can be better people in the year ahead.)
If you are not Jewish, you may or may not be comfortable accompanying your Jewish partner or family to synagogue for the High Holy Days. And you may or may not feel connected to the at-home rituals that are part of these holy days. But you can still find meaning in the process of reflection in which Jews engage at this time of year.
I hope that as the Jewish New Year approaches, all of us will give ourselves the gift of taking time for cheshbon ha-nefesh, for the accounting of our own souls. May we recognize and be grateful for our generosity and goodness; and may we be honest with ourselves about those qualities that we need to improve – and may we seek to do so in the year ahead.
Are you taking time for yourself during the month of Elul to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh? Have you made any resolutions for the year ahead? If so, please share them below.