I don’t put much in the way of actual Torah up here, so I thought I’d share a bit of seasonally-appropriate cheer. Okay, it’s not cheery. But it’s seasonal, at least. This is a d’var that I gave a couple of years back at the Shtibl Minyan.
This, as with all my writing, is covered by the Creative Commons License. Feel free to link to it or to quote from it citing me as the author; do not feel free to copy it whole at all, or to quote from it (or copy it outright) without citing me. Thanks for understanding; as I’m sure some of you know, the Internet can be a thorny place for working writers sometimes.
In any case, g’mar tov to one and all.
Mitah v’Yom HaKippurin Michaprin
by Danya Ruttenberg
When Rav Nahman was dying, the Talmud in Moed Katan teaches us, he begged Rava to implore the angel of death not to torment him. Rava replied, â€œBut, Master, are you not esteemed enough to ask him yourself?â€ Rav Nahman considered this for a moment, and then pondered aloud, â€œWho is esteemed, who is regarded, who is distinguishedâ€ in the face of Death Himself? Then, after he died, Rav Nahman appeared to Rava in a dream. â€œMaster, did you suffer any pain?â€ Rava asked. Rav Nahman replied, â€œAs little as taking a hair from milk. Still, if the Holy One were to say to me, â€˜Go back to that world,â€™ I would not consent, the fear of death being so great.â€
This summer, I worked as a hospital chaplain at the UCLA Medical Center. I was the chaplain for several unitsâ€”general medicine, geriatrics, and the Medical ICU. The MICU, as itâ€™s called, has a lot of very, very sick people in itâ€”the chaplains call it â€œthe last stop before Heaven.â€ There, I was blessed with the opportunity to be with people as they received a terminal diagnosis, or as their families made decisions about withdrawal of care, or as they died.
I think of one patient in particular, whose memory lingers with me. His name was Tom, sometimes people called him Tommy. He was a veteran of both Vietnam and Korea who had survived two liver transplants before throat cancer decided to rend a final toll. By the time I met him there was very little left on his thin frame, and a large, scabby tumor on his neck served as a constant reminder that, soon, the cancer would wrap itself around his throat and, ultimately, suffocate him.
He was angry. Understandably so, but he was a shut down, depressed sort of angry. Most of the time when I went to see him, he was reticent, unwilling to talk, and he often indicated with a grunt and a dismissive wave of the hand that he didnâ€™t want to see me. Sometimes heâ€™d talk to me, but only from a place of deep denial: he was going home soon, heâ€™d tell me. He was going to buy a house. Over time, he became more willing to talk and, one day, he drowned me in a furious torrent of furious questions: He survived two wars and two transplants, and it all came down toâ€”what? What had all of his work added up to? This was how it was going to end? Heâ€™d sit up, the bones of his knees bulging out under his hospital gown, mustache twitching and heâ€™d peer at me, livid: This is all I get? Itâ€™s not enough.
Tommy, like a lot of the folks on the MICUâ€”if they were ableâ€”were asking the same kinds of questions that, hopefully, we all have over the last 5 weeks, the last 10 days, the last few hours. Who am I? What meaning have I given to my life? What do I regret? Where did I not live up to my own potential, or integrity, or half of a relationship with God? Where have I been putting my energy, and what does that say about the life that Iâ€™ve chosen to live? What would I want to be different?
The Mishnah, in Yoma, makes what seems, at first, like a somewhat puzzling statement: Mitah vâ€™Yom HaKippurim Michaprin. Death and Yom Kippur atone. But the two really arenâ€™t so different: Today, we refuse food and drink just as someone approaching death. The dying person will say, or have said for them, a vidui prayer not dissimilar to the viduiâ€”the confessionâ€”that weâ€™ve been saying all day. We wear white today to mirror the simple shrouds in which we will all be buried. We refrain from leather, anointing, bathing and sex as though we were a mourner. We ask, â€œwho shall live and who shall die, who shall attain the measure of manâ€™s days and who shall not attain it.â€
Today is the day that we are rehearsing our own death. Our prayers take on the frenzied intensity of last chances precisely because, on the level of Divine reality, this is our last chance. There is an utter finality to this moment. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. Today is the day that we die.
So what tools do we have to emerge through to the other side? What do we need to know, right now, in order to weather the storm of our own death â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦and, hopefully, to be reborn?
Longtime hospice worker Kathleen Dowling Singh lays out the stages of dying in an important book called The Grace in Dying. They are, according to her: Chaos, Surrender and Transcendence. And Iâ€™d like to suggest that these are precisely the steps we need to take today in order to affect kapparah, to help create atonement for the crimes we have each committed against ourselves, and against God.
The confusion and soul-sickness that Tommy sufferedâ€”that some of us have been suffering these last weeksâ€”is the story of Chaos. Itâ€™s Rav Nahman, terrified and desperate at the prospect of being tormented. Itâ€™s what happens when we finally peel back the layers of denial that characterize most of our waking moments, and we see the disconnect between the story weâ€™ve been telling ourselves about our lives, and our lives as they really are. Itâ€™s what happens when we realize that all of our struggles this year are coming to nothing, that as hard, and painful, and exhausting as the last year has beenâ€”we still havenâ€™t been able to keep ourselves from chronic, habitual, repeated sin.
Most of the classical literature on tshuvah is about Chaos, I thinkâ€”about cheshbon ha-nefeshâ€”an accounting of the soulâ€”and beating our breasts. Itâ€™s about the denial, anger, bargaining and depression we all move through as the reality of who we are is laid bare.
Chaos is hard, and necessary, but measuring the distance between ourselves and God isnâ€™t, ultimately, how we will be able to bridge the gulf. Itâ€™s not how we get back home.
The path home is through surrender.
Itâ€™s paradoxical, isnâ€™t it? In many ways, the tshuvah process is completely, utterly about what is in our controlâ€”taking responsibility for the decisions that we make, choosing differently the next time weâ€™re in a similar situation, making things clean with people weâ€™ve hurt and trying to find compassion for those who have hurt us. But thereâ€™s more to it than that.
We donâ€™t have control over whether or not we will be inscribed in the book of life. We donâ€™t have control over whether our prayers will be answered, whether the gates will still be open by the time we get there. In the Une Tane Tokef we read, Ma-Avir tzono tachat shivto, kayn ta-avir vâ€™tispor vâ€™timaneh, vâ€™tifkod col chai, vâ€™tachtoch kitzvah lâ€™chol briyah, vâ€™tichtov et gezer dinam. We say to God, â€œAs a shepherd passes his sheep beneath his staff, so too do you pass and count, measure and notice every living being, and appoint the ration of every creature, and record the decree of its destiny.â€
Or, as Rav Nachman asked, â€œWho is esteemed, who is regarded, who is distinguishedâ€ in the face of Death himself? In the face of God, Godself?
Itâ€™s terrifying to acknowledge that weâ€™re not in control. If we relinquish the iron grip we think we have on our story, the pain and the secrets weâ€™ve shoved down into a corner of our heart might have permission to come up. The anger, and sadness, and disappointment, and grief thatâ€™ve been there all along might emerge, demand attention, might even reveal something about our lives that needs desperately to be differentâ€”something that we donâ€™t want, but that we desperately, desperately need. Maybe weâ€™re afraid that our pain will consume us, maybe petrified by the possibility that our deepest longings will pull us off our self-imposed script and move us into entirely uncharted waters. But ultimately, I think, surrender is a gift. If weâ€™re not in control, we can finally stop trying to force our lives to be what we think we want them to be, stop trying to coerce the outcomeâ€”and allow our lives to be what they already are.
There was this one time I went to visit Tommyâ€”put on the yellow robe and rubber gloves required with patients who were considered high risks for infectionâ€”and he seemed more subdued than usual. He wasnâ€™t surrounded by the black, anxious cloud that I had come to associate with him. We chatted for a few minutes, and then I took a risk with a question that he would typically consider invasive and unwelcome : I asked him if he was feeling scared. To my surprise, he responded directly, after some thought. â€œNo, Iâ€™m not scared,â€ he said. â€œI just donâ€™t know what to expect. What with passing on, and all.â€
And then, to my surprise, he moved his hand near my gloved one, and allowed me to take his. We sat in silence for a long while, just holding hands. Something had shifted within him. He finally really understood that he was dying, and I think he wasnâ€™t angry anymore.
I think of the wave that sees the beach up ahead and begins to panic, begins to worry about that moment of crashing on sand. And then, another moment: relief. When it remembers that itâ€™s been water the whole time. That thereâ€™s only ever been water.
Thereâ€™s nothing we have to do but surrender. We donâ€™t get to be in chargeâ€”we donâ€™t have to be in charge. If thereâ€™s one thing that Iâ€™ve learned about dying from working with the dying, itâ€™s this: dying is safe. And you, right now, are safe: you are already entirely God, and now you only have to let go, to melt into that awareness as though you were ice in water. Song of Songs Rabbah tells us, in the name of Rabbi Yossi: The Holy Oneâ€¦ said to Israel, â€œMy children, present to me an opening of tshuvah no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which wagons and carriages can pass.â€ You have done good work, and now you donâ€™t have to work anymore.
God will do the hard work. All you have to do is be willing to let God open you, willing to meet whatever you find as it makes manifest. Willing to let go.
Through surrender is the path to Transcendence, to the dissolving of our small-ego selves into the greater whole, to the return of our prayers to the gates of tshuvah before the gates have closed.
The Gemara in Yoma teaches that â€œGreat is tshuvah, for it reaches the Throne of the Glory of God.â€ The Koretzer rebbe interprets this to mean that â€œit unites with the Throne of Glory and becomes a part of the Throne of Glory.â€ In other words, your tshuvah becomes part of the God Godselfâ€”and you, the open, returning one, becomeâ€”and, on another level, already areâ€”a part of the Throne of Glory as well.
Let go, allow yourself to feel what you already know: you are with God. You are of God, you always have been and you are right now, in this moment. Allow the illusory strictures of control to fall away, and you will know that you are, already, home.
This, then, is the legacy of Rav Nachman: that as crushingly heavy as is the fear of death, as is the fear of surrenderâ€”the moment of surrender itselfâ€”and the path to transcendence that leads us back in unity to God–is easy, effortless. Like hair from milk.