In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer advises us to “Return [to God] one day before you die. (Pirke Avot 2:10).” But none of us knows the day of our death. Thus we should repent daily.
My friend Bruce’s friend’s father died last Friday at 72—five years older than me. He was healthy, active and vital. The death was entirely unexpected. Bruce’s dad had no time to make final preparations, say last words, give and receive farewell hugs. Neither did Bruce, his mother and his sisters. Many of us hope we’ll die suddenly while in good health sparing our families the challenges imposed by long periods of illness. I can attest to the suffering before my friend Yury, 60, died of pancreatic cancer in May 2009 and another friend, Tom—my age—died of asbestosis this month.
So how can we prepare for death however it may come? The standard answer is to live life to the fullest and, of course, repent at the end of each day, squaring ourselves with God or whatever force, power or philosophy we believe in.
Yet here lies another challenge. We Americans push ourselves as if we really do expect to die tomorrow. We work long hours, take pride in how busy we are and put the same energy into our vacations, which must be packed with activity. And we connect! We stay current with a host of friends—if that word accurately represents our contacts—on Facebook. We call, we text, we tweet, we email—even when we gather with others at a restaurant or in a home. But will all this activity really leave us—and those we love—contented on the day we die?
Now, I like doing things, too. But what a remarkable gift it is to just drop out for a while. I did that to a great extend over the past two weeks. I came down with a nasty cold. Now, mine is a body to which germs go to die, but the virus hit me hard. I took to bed for two days. I napped. I listened to the radio. I read. I watched TV. Then the cold went to my bronchial tubes. For ten days, I’ve been sleeping sitting up in bed or nearly so. I’ve done a little work, a little writing and a lot of nothing. Now that I‘m recovering, I still nap after lunch—without guilt.
But why do we have to be so terribly sick to take time off now and then and shut the world out? Why can’t we find time to be less busy, less caught up in activities of questionable value? There’s a lot good to say about sleep until whenever on occasion, staying in your pajamas and gorging on BluRays or an entertaining novel and letting the world go by?
This leads me to the thought that we have more to repent of than we think. I don’t mean that people do terrible things each day. I’m no believer in original sin (a Christian concept, not a Jewish one.) So why follow Rabbi Eliezer’s advice? Because it’s important to recognize lost opportunities to simply be part of creation and exist on our own innate merit. On the day we die, we might then realize that by doing less at times, we lived more.
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