By: Joshua Shapiro  | 

Repent Today Lest You Die Tomorrow

At a recent l’chaim, a friend asked me what seemed to be a pretty ordinary question: “So, what are you reading this Elul?” While I thought about a few things that I need to improve upon in the coming year, I was slightly abashed that I did not start reading any works relating to teshuva yet. So, I sheepishly admitted that I was getting around to reading one of the classics, Rav Soloveitchik’s “On Repentance.”  

Over the next few minutes I contemplated what my friend asked me and had an epiphany. Much of the dialogue in Elul consists of what people are reading or learning — the classic teshuva works like Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva or more contemporary books. However, very seldom is the focus on what we are actually planning on changing. 

Along similar lines, the Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (153a) presents a fascinating dialogue: 

Rabbi Eliezer says: Repent one day before your death. Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow.

Regarding this passage, the Maharal (Chapter 2, Netiv Hateshuva) asks an interesting question: Why couldn’t Rabbi Eliezer immediately state that one should repent every day? Put differently, why did Rabbi Eliezer seemingly include the theme of death unnecessarily? 

Most directly, Rabbi Eliezer might be spurring the sinner towards repentance. The prospect of death creates a sense of urgency for someone, lest he encounter the Judge of the heavenly court unprepared. According to this interpretation, Rabbi Eliezer is making a quantitative suggestion: Someone might have a lot of sins to repent for, so make sure you do teshuva and check off all your boxes before you reach the afterlife. 

However, death doesn’t just create a sense of urgency for our daily repentance; it qualitatively changes how we approach it. Upon the advent of death, people suddenly realize what is important in life. As David Brooks writes in his essay “The Moral Bucket List,” there are two categories of virtues: resume and eulogy. In his own words, “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral.” Before death, people are no longer concerned with material goals and external appearances — how much money they earned, how they look or how successful they were. Rather, they ask questions that cut much deeper: Will people at my funeral speak of me as a genuine and kind person, one who listened to people well and actively looked out for the welfare of others? Was I a good family man — one who set aside time each week to be there for his sisters, frequently called his parents and successfully prevented work or learning from interfering with the time allocated towards his brother? Did I leave a positive impact on this world through my daily encounters and hours at work?

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz similarly emphasizes that the prospect of death should color our experience of teshuva. In a poignant reflection on his father’s passing, he writes that we misconceive that life has only two stages: life and death. “But there is also a middle stage,” he writes — one where we are “merely dying.” At this stage, Rabbi Katz explains, “we are actually hyper-alive. We [breathe], think and perhaps eat, but we are no longer involved in the negative aspects of life. Our worries are gone, our jealousies dissolved.” It is this feeling of utter aliveness, reflectiveness and clarity, he concludes, that we should strive for on Yom Kippur.

After my friend asked me that question, it hit me. Elul and the Yamim Noraim are not merely about finding the next best approach to teshuva as recorded in a sefer. It is a period of brutally honest reflection and recalibration. Specifically gauging my productivity, balance between learning and family and overall friendliness might seem overly practical but it is also the most profound. Granted, and I mean this, sefarim and books can wonderfully inspire us to improve in certain areas. However, while we are kovea itim in Elul for learning different works on teshuva, do we ever allot real time to sit down and actually reflect on where we are at, ask ourselves these important questions and effectively concretize the wonderful teachings that we came across in the past month? Within our busy schedules, do we designate a seder to carefully ponder how our relationships with our siblings are and methodically take notes on which Jewish rituals we can perform with more consistency and intention this year?

Indeed, contemplating death can be quite depressing, but it reminds us of what is truly important in this world. While we should undoubtedly set aside time this month to read, we must also set aside time to reflect — to temporarily insert ourselves into this state of “dying” and focus on what is most crucial. For after all, as Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent today lest you die tomorrow.”


Photo Caption: An empty journal

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