“They (each of the five students of R. Yochanan listed earlier) said three things. R. Eliezer said: May the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own. Do not anger easily. Repent one day before you die. Warm yourself before the fire of the Sages. But be wary with their coals that you not get burnt, for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.”
Last week we discussed R. Eliezer’s first two statements — that we honor our fellow and that we not easily anger. As we saw, the two points are in truth one and the same. Only if we are exceedingly patient and tolerant of others will we be able to accept our fellow for all his differences and foibles and accord him the honor he deserves.
We now move to the rabbi’s next, cryptically-brief statement: “Repent one day before you die.” The commentators take note of the obvious: Nobody knows just when his day of death will be. Therefore, clearly, the intent of our mishna is that we always live in a state of penitence, ever prepared to stand before the Almighty upon our deaths.
The message is thus that we must never be overly content. We cannot just take it for granted that we’ll live till a ripe old age — and will worry about our spirituality at some point closer to that time (when we’ll be too old to enjoy ourselves very much anyway). Our days are limited; we all know and constantly hear of people who were struck down in their prime — often at the most unexpected time. Whether or not we care to face this reality, we must live each day with the realization that it may quite literally be our last.
Death has always been an enigma to man, a phenomenon which haunts our consciousness, gnaws at our fears, and bespeaks our mortality — at least that of our bodies. With all man knows today about the physical world around him, death — the gateway to the metaphysical — remains a fearful enigma. And all sorts of rabbinic statements, legends and campfire stories aside, we really don’t know precisely what will happen after we die — and it scares us. We’re scared of dying, and we’re scared of the fact that we really don’t know.
Similarly, we are not told when our deaths will occur. And this too is the Divine will. The Talmud (Shabbos 30a) writes that King David asked G-d when his death would be, and G-d refused him the knowledge. He responded: “It is a decree before Me that the day of death not be told to flesh and blood.” (G-d did allow David to know that his death would occur on the Sabbath.) It seems that G-d wills it that death be a mystery, and as with many aspects of the metaphysical realm, it is a phenomenon just beyond the reach of man’s consciousness.
I believe there is an important practical reason for this. On the one hand, we should not feel our days are numbered. If a person would know he has X years to go, that the day of his death will be, say, March 14, 2036, then even during his years here he would feel finite and dying. There is an impending sense of doom; his life is slowly slipping away from him. And he may well feel that accomplishing during his fleeting years of existence is almost pointless — and will change little in the face of his inevitable demise. Man needs a sense of immortality to face life and to live up to the challenges he is truly capable of. We must live life to the fullest, not allowing ourselves to be weighted down with the sense that death is two weeks or 80 years away.
The flip side of this is that if we felt we had many years to go — say we knew that date was 75 years away, we would live without the necessary sense of the inevitable. A person could easily feel that the several decades he has to go — which in truth is precious little time — is quite a while. And such a person will not live with the appropriate sense of his mortality. I have more than enough time till I need to start worrying about G-d and religion. Synagogue attendance is a spiritual diversion for the elderly and retired. I know I have the time to go — and meanwhile I have far too much to live for.
G-d, however, does not grant us such a luxury. You’re a 27-year-old non-smoker in perfect health? Get all your antioxidants, omegas and free radicals? (Feel free to add whatever else is the latest health rage. Drink your pomegranate juice, eat your flax-seed powder, etc. I’m just afraid none of those are going to do you any good if you fall off a cliff.) Nothing is certain — no matter how low your health insurance premiums are. G-d has shown man far too often just how fragile and vulnerable our lives are. And as morbid as it sounds, the reality of death must never be too far from our consciousness.
(Just as a little aside, I like to point out that many of the foods science today is discovering to be particularly beneficial — barley, flax, pomegranates — are native to the Holy Land — “a land in which you will lack nothing” (Deuteronomy 8:9).)
There is another phenomenon in Judaism which closely resembles the phenomenon of death: the arrival of the Messiah. The date of his arrival too is a Divinely-ordained mystery. The Talmud tells us that one should not attempt to make predictions as to his coming, and that he will appear only when we are not expecting him (Sanhedrin 97). Ironically, this to a great deal resembles our attitude towards death, as we shall see.
On the one hand, we are to feel the Messiah may come at any moment. His arrival is a real and pending event — rather than a vague, metaphysical concept of a distant, hazy future. (Traditional Judaism has always viewed the Messiah as an actual person who will rescue us in a very literal sense, rather than a philosophical construct. A more recent innovation has been that with the advent of socialism or secular humanism (or whatever happens to be intellectually fashionable), the anticipated days of peace have already arrived and mankind will henceforth live in eternal harmony. Nice try, but it’s going to take something a little more forceful than man coming to his senses on his own.)
On the other hand, we do not spend our days living in bated-breath anticipation. We live out our days fully prepared for the contingency that the Messiah will not arrive in our lifetimes — as so many generations of Jews have lived before us.
Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, one of the great thinkers and educators of our generation, has observed that we are obligated to be responsible and practical during our stay in exile. Judaism has always frowned on people who are too strong believers — who never take their lives and futures very seriously because they are so certain that Messiah is around the corner. He, a Holocaust survivor, remarks that literally the only thing that kept him and his family going during the Holocaust was the day-to-day belief that the Messiah was about to arrive. He will appear at any moment and rescue them from the Nazi oppressors. He’ll kill them all and bring us to Jerusalem. Just hold on; just a little bit longer.
Yet after the war, while he was still a yeshiva student, his teacher told the students that G-d may very well have a different plan for humanity. Maybe G-d wants them to rebuild Torah and Judaism once more before the Messiah’s arrival. (R. Chaim Volozhiner, great Lithuanian rabbi of the late 18th and early 19th Century, is purported to have said that America will be the Torah’s final stop before the coming of the Messiah. Needless to say, he stated this when there were very few Jews — and virtually no religious Jews — living in America.)
As R. Tauber recalled, his teacher’s words made a very painful impression on him, a survivor of the Holocaust . The very lifeline that carried him through hell was being wrested from him: maybe the Messiah was not coming so soon. We cannot just ignore the reality around us — as awful as it sometimes may be — and look for miraculous Divine salvation. We have to face life ourselves.
And this is the dual existence we as Jews must live. The Messiah may very well be at our doorstep — and that belief has carried generations of Jews through the darkest moments of exile. Yet at the same time, we live and plan as if our generation will not be the one worthy of him. As R. Tauber put it, we must build schools and Torah institutions wherever we find ourselves, and we must do so as if our great-grandchildren will need them. We pray that they do not — How could the world’s problems continue unabated for yet another 60 years? — yet this is our obligation. And, concluded R. Tauber, today he himself is a great-grandparent, watching his own great-grandchildren study and grow in the Torah schools founded by individuals who had such foresight, and who, in spite of their greatest hopes and dreams, established Torah for generations to come.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.