Lessons Learned From Standing On the Precipice
Between Life and Death

David Wachstock, Psy.D.
West Side Minyan, Ansche Chesed, NYC

In memory of my friend Rabbi Leonard Aronson, Ph.D.

Today is the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. It is a day devoted to introspection and self-reflection, confession and repentance, and a time to ask ourselves some very important questions; How can I get closer to God? What do I need to change, to do Teshuva? How can I change? Can I live a life of meaning and purpose?

As you know, the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur uses as its basic framework the metaphor of a trial. We are the defendants and God is the Judge. On Rosh Hashanah we enter the courtroom and on Yom Kippur we hear the verdict. BeRosh Hashanah Yikotev Ve Be Yom Kippur YiKotev. Mi Yiche or Mi Yamus.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is decreed: Who will die and who will live.

Each of us, every day, live on the precipice between life and death. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, profoundly reminds us in his book, The Jewish Holidays how our tradition concentrates the individual's attention on death during this period.

I will argue, that the Yom Kippur liturgy deliberately highlights the existential fact of life, namely the reality of our mortality, so that it can be the catalyst for personal change, Teshuva.

I will speak to you today about three people for whom this awareness had great impact.

The first, was my beloved friend, Rabbi Leonard Aronson. This Dvar Torah is dedicated to him.

He and I were both psychologists. When he initially told me of his goals, to become a Rabbi. I was taken aback. I asked Leonard, "Why are you studying to be a Rabbi? You are a Diplomate in clinical psychology, at the forefront of our profession. You are the director of a mental health center." I also reminded him that he was after all in his mid-40's and no longer a youngster.

Leonard then shared his unique wisdom.

"Dave, I often asked my most depressed patients to consider this question: how would you spend your time if you had only twenty-four hours to live? My goal was to help my patients to confront their most important values. What is it they really believed and why is it that they are not following their innermost wishes and desires? "

Leonard said, "I realized I had never asked myself the same question. I was able to help others but I avoided looking inwards. I had to ask myself: If you Leonard, had only twenty-four hours to live, what would you do? Would you pursue sensual pleasures or would you spend your time with loved ones? Would you be too anxious and depressed to face others? The answer that came out of my kichkes -- my emotional core -- astounded me. I would say good-bye to my loved ones and then spend the rest of my time studying Torah. I, a man who had broken away from the orthodoxy of my family, would choose to study Torah!"

And because Leonard was a man of action, he immediately decided to honor his insight by enrolling at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He became observant. He davened. He kept Kosher.

Leonard, like Rabbi Akiva, in mid-life, decided what he really wanted to do is to become a rabbi. He entered rabbinical school and graduated. He then took a pulpit at the New Hyde Jewish Center in Long Island and continued his work as the director of the mental health center.

Seven years ago Leonard gave his Rosh Hashanah sermon. Leonard had heart disease and thoughts of death were not foreign to him. In the more than fifteen years we were friends, I often sensed his deep appreciation for the fragility of life. That year he never made it to Yom Kippur . . . He died of a heart attack between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was about this time, seven years ago that I was surrounded by Leonard's congregants and friends who were testifying and acknowledging the major impact Leonard had made in their lives.

The Torah I learned as Leonard's friend is the following: While death is often evil, the thought of death offers the opportunity for growth and a better life.

The thought of death in the liturgy is meant to be a wake-up call, like the sound of the Shofar, like seeing your own name listed in a funeral parlor, to claim our freedom to choose a better way of life--to do Teshuva.

On Yom Kippur we wear the Kitel, that white shroud. The Kitel is also the same garment we bury our dead. We say Kaddish. The Torah reading is about the death of Aaron's two sons.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg suggests that we expand the notion of life and death. Death does not just mean the end of physical existence. It is possible to be physically alive but emotionally and spiritually dead. Routine and stagnation, he reminds us, are a form of life-in-death.

Is there anyone here, today, who has not felt the despair of the night? The feeling that comes with a dead-end job or relationship? The wish and yearning to feel deeply and frustration when you cannot attain that goal? Have you experienced the pain of feeling stuck or trapped and see no way out?

In these desperate times we need the support of others. We need the faith of others and we desperately need hope from those who were able to transcend their own adversity.

One such person was Morrie Schwartz.

Morrie Schwartz, was a sociology professor at Brandeis University who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease, a brutal disease of the neurological system. ALS destroys the nervous system slowly until all movement ceases and the basic functions of life can no longer be sustained.

Mitch Albon, a student of Morrie's, wanted to capture his esteemed professor's final teachings. Mitch visited his professor every Tuesday, both compassionately as friend and as an ad hoc seminar with his mentor on The Meaning of Life. Albon's tribute to his old professor, is the sensitively written book, Tuesdays with Morrie.

On one such Tuesday, they talked about death. Mitch asks his old professor, "How can you ever be prepared to die?" (Excerpted from Tuesdays with Morrie.)

Morrie answers, "Do what the Buddhist do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks 'Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?' "

He turned his head to his shoulders as if the bird were there now.

"Is today the day I die?" he said . . . I noticed that he quivered now when he moved his hands. His glasses hung around his neck, they slid around his temples, as if he were trying to put them on someone else in the dark. I reached over to help guide them onto his ears.

"Thank you," Morrie whispered. He smiled when my hand brushed up against his head. The slightest human contact was immediate joy

"Mitch. Can I tell you something?"

"Of course," I said.

"You might not like it."

"Why not?"

"Well, the truth is, if you really listen to that bird on your shoulder, if you accept that you can die any time -- then you might not be as ambitious as you are."

I forced a small grin. He nodded toward the window with the sunshine streaming in. "You see that? You can go out there, outside, anytime. I can't do that. I can't go out. I can't run. I can't be out there for fear of getting sick. But you know what -- I appreciate that window more than you do."

"Appreciate it?"

"Yes, I look out that window every day. I notice the change in the trees, how strong the wind's blowing. It's as if I can see time actually passing through the window. Because I know my time is almost done, I am drawn to nature like I am seeing it for the first time."

He stopped, and for a moment we both just looked out of the window. I tried to see what he saw. I tried to see time and seasons, my life passing in slow motion. Morrie dropped his head slightly and curled it toward his shoulder. "Is it today?"

"Is it today, little bird?" . . . My friend Leonard would have liked that question. He would have reminded me of Rabbi Eliezer who, in Perke Avoth, The Ethics of our Fathers, states that a person can still repent, change his way of being, one day before he dies. The story is told that he was asked by his students "but how are we to know when that day will be?" "Ah," says Rabbi Eliezer," that is precisely the point. That is why every day we must do Teshuva, repent, and change our way of life."

. . . Let me say a few words about Erma Bombeck. She was a famous columnist and comedienne who poked fun at life in the surburbs. She had breast cancer and subsequently developed renal failure. She died at the age of 69 . She never attempted to use her celebrity status for special privilege despite suffering through dialysis four times weekly.

As she faced her imminent death, she penned the following piece. I was greatly moved by her words and I feel they are appropriate for the spirit of this Holy Day.

by Erma Bombeck

I would have talked less and listened more.

I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet

Was stained, or the sofa faded.

I would have eaten the popcorn in the 'good' living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace

I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth.

I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed.

I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.

I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about grass stains

I would have cried and laughed less while watching television and more while watching life.

I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband.

I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren't there for the day.

I would never have bought anything just because it was practical, wouldn't show soil, or was guaranteed to last a lifetime.

Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I'd have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.

When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, "Later. Now go get washed up for dinner."

There would have been more "I love you's" . . . more "I'm sorry's" . . . but mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute . . . look at it and really see it . . . live it . . . and never give it back

Stop sweating the small stuff. Don't worry about who doesn't like you, who has more, or who's doing what. Instead, let's cherish the relationships we have with those who Do love us. Let's think about what God HAS blessed us with. And what we are doing each day to promote ourselves mentally, physically, emotionally, as well as spiritually. Life is too short to let it pass you by. We only have one shot at this and then it's gone

And, finally, I would like to tell you a story, my story. I had an uncle who died. His name was also David Wachstock. I of course, went to his funeral. At the entrance, in bold lettering, I read: SERVICES FOR DAVID WACHSTOCK WILL BE HELD IN THE CHAPEL. I was shocked and overcome with anxiety. For a moment, I thought I was going to my own funeral. I thought, of the day when people will go to Riverside and the sign will direct them to my final chapel.

What would they say at my eulogy? What legacy do I want to leave? If I could write my own eulogy, what would I say? What have I learned from Leonard, Morrie and Erma ? It is not simply about the lessons learned in the confrontation of one's death but of the courage to confront one's life fully despite our mortality.

The Yom Kippur service forces me to confront my death. This theme of death, this feeling that I stand on the precipice between life and death, is a catalyst that helps me focus on my most important values. Death to me is not just physical death: I see death as a metaphor for stagnation, inertia, and the inability to find the correct path in our lives.

To be given this time to reflect, to evaluate, to forgive and to be forgiven is to be given the gift of regeneration. Yom Kippur offers us the opportunity to begin anew. May the source of all life, bless us, remember us for life, and help us make wise use of our ever-declining personal resource: the minutes and hours of our lives. Amen. Thank you.