21 Years Ago: The Truth Hurts
Before God created the human being, according to alegend of the Midrash, He consulted the angels of heaven. The angelof peace argued, “Let him not be created; he will bring contentioninto the world.” But the angel of compassion countered, “Let him becreated; he will bring lovingkindness into the world.” The angel oftruth argued, “Let him not be created; he will be deceitful and fillthe world with lies.” And the angel of justice countered, “Let him becreated; he will attach himself to righteousness.” What did God do?He threw truth into the Earth and proceeded to create the humanbeing.
The Rabbis knew that there is a fundamentalincompatibility between human beings and truth. We don’t want truth.We can’t tolerate truth. Especially truth about ourselves — ourfailures, our limitations, our finitude. Once a year, at Yom Kippur,Jewish tradition forces us to face the truth.
Yom Kippur is an unusual holiday. We are such apassionately life-affirming culture. We cherish and sanctify life.Any ritual law of the tradition may be suspended to save or protect ahuman life. We say “L’Chaim!” (“To Life!”) over every glass ofwine.
But on Yom Kippur, we confront death. We rehearsedeath. We deny the body — fasting (which, for Jews, is a form ofdeath), abstaining from sexual intimacy, and removing our jewelry andfinery, our fashionable clothes, our polished, comfortable shoes, todon the simplest of garb. Tradition dictates the wearing of a kittel– a death shroud. In medieval monasteries, monks slept each night intheir coffins, to remind themselves that the wage of sin is death.That’s morbid. But to don a shroud once a year, to seriously confrontdeath, is cleansing. For, in the face of death, all therationalizations, all the excuses, all the defenses fall away, and weare forced to see who and what we really are.
The philosopher Franz Rosensweig taught that onYom Kippur, the Jew is given the unique opportunity to see his or herlife through the eyes of eternity. From the vantage of eternity, whatin our lives matters? What is real? What is important? What isvaluable? And what, from eternity’s perspective, are all the needlessobsessions and worries that waste our souls and sap ourstrength?
Despite all our evasions, the truth is that wedon’t have an endless string of tomorrows. Life is finite. And life’sfinitude forces us to have priorities and makes our choicesimportant. Pretend for a moment that you had only 25 hours to live.To whom would you run to say, “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” or “I loveyou”? What relationships would you attempt to resolve, to repair?What would you be proud of in your life? What would you regret? Whatwould you most miss? Now, why are you waiting? I have been a rabbilong enough to know that the saddest, most bitter tears at thegraveside are those for the life not lived, for the love not shared,for the tenderness not expressed, for the words unspoken.
“Teach us to number our days,” prays the Psalmist,”to get us a heart of wisdom.” Ordinarily a morbid thought. But oncea year, confronting the truth liberates us from the bondage ofillusions and excuses so that we can begin the new year with renewedstrength, with renewed vision, with renewed hope. Gemar Tov. May yoube sealed in God’s Book of Life for a year of sweetness and peace.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.