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Rosh Hashanah Sermon — 1 Tishre 5777/ Oct. 3, 2016

Being Mortal – Living Heroically

Rabbi Mark Fasman

Several months ago, Dr. Michael Pokroy delivered a fascinating talk on the future of medicine. In his talk, he shared the fact that scientists believe that it is entirely possible for human beings to live 150 years.

Just imagine how life and culture will change – relationships, families, careers, economics, education, and virtually every other aspect of human life will have to be re-thought and re-calibrated to adjust to the new normal.

One thing that will not change is the death rate. One hundred percent of human beings – and all living things – will die.

Just a few hours from here – in the White Mountains NNE of Bishop – is the oldest known living tree – a bristlecone pine estimated to be 5,066 years old. It, too, will die one day.

One of the central themes of the High Holy Days is human mortality. In last Wednesday’s e-bulletin, there was a list of Jewish holidays and the psychological condition associated with each. Rosh Hashanah, it says, is for people who obsess over dying.

Our wish for ourselves and our loved ones is that we will be written in the Book of Life for the coming year. In our prayer, Unetaneh tokef, we reflect on “who will live and who will die, who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end; who will perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague.

The contemporary Jewish philosopher Woody Allen asks [Side Effects] “…Exactly what do we mean when we say, man is mortal?  Obviously it’s not a compliment.”

This from the man who, when asked what would he want people to say at his funeral, said he would like people to say, “Look, he’s moving!”

Such a Jewish worldview: Death is life’s horrible end, to be avoided as long as possible.

One way to deal with death is to deny it. As contemporary (non-Jewish) philosopher Steven Wright has quipped: “I plan to live forever; so far, so good.” That is, I am living my life as an immortal.

Then there is the new television sit-com, The Good Place, in which individuals who have died are matched with their soul mates and will “live” forever in a specially constructed community – a kind of Garden of Eden. Forever! Sounds more like “the bad place” to me.

All religious traditions deal with death.

My point is that mortality is more than an inescapable biological fact. Awareness of mortality profoundly impacts on how we live. Mortality gives meaning to life. It gives meaning to relationships. It gives meaning to our work and our play. It gives meaning to our health and our illness. It gives meaning to our choices.

Recently, a surgeon and Harvard Medical School professor named Atul Gawande published a book entitled Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. The premise of the book is: that we die remains unchanged; how we die has changed dramatically in just the past few decades. Thus, that we are mortal is unchanged, but the meaning of our mortality and the life choices we make is changing dramatically.

Until recently in human history, if you created a graph of a person’s health, it would remain robust for as long as the person lived, whether 20 years or 40 years or 80 years – once health failed – or once one became symptomatic anyway, it was typically a matter of hours or days or maybe weeks until death.

The pattern of decline has changed, however, for many chronic illnesses – with the graph of health looking more like a hilly road down the mountain than a precipitous drop.

And now that people are living into their nineties – with all of the maintenance measures and patch jobs that medicine has to offer, the curve of life and health becomes a long, slow fade.

What is the value of knowing that time is short? The sudden knowledge of the fragility of one’s life narrows our focus and alters our desires. What are our highest priorities and values? How will we invest our failing finite hours and energies in a way that gives us the greatest satisfaction in making our lives most meaningful?

As human life expectancy continues to increase, our mortality becomes less and less or a motivator for living a meaningful life. When life expectancy was short, people had children and built their careers at a much younger age – now that there is less urgency, well, half of all American Jewish men age 35 have never been married. We have children later. We have fewer children.

And as end of life is now much more likely to be a decades-long gradual decline, this too is affecting our sense of urgency regarding our mortality. So to the extent that a heightened sense of our mortality can be a powerful motivator for living a life of meaning and mitzvah, our new reality sends a message of manana – no need to do today what I can do when it’s more convenient. No hurry.

In 1973, Ernest Becker published a book that was to become the Pulitzer Prize winner in the category of General Nonfiction. His book, The Denial of Death, explores human response to the reality of our mortality. Some argue that fear of death is innate. Others argue that it is learned. In any event, by the age of nine or ten, human beings generally understand the non-negotiable reality that all of us die.

So what do we do with that fact? We can repress it. In fact, we have to repress it to some extent. Otherwise, it would be impossible to move through life while looking death square in the face.

Becker writes that “of all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death” [11]. “Heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death. We admire most the courage to face death; we give such valor our highest and most constant adoration; it moves us deeply in our hearts because we have doubts about how brave we ourselves would be.”

And thus, since the terror of death can be so paralyzing, human beings live within “an impossible paradox: [we experience] the ever-present fear of death in the normal biological functioning of our instinct of self-preservation, as well as our utter obliviousness to this fear in our conscious life.”

Becker links heroism and mortality. These are two major themes of the High Holy Days, though perhaps we haven’t thought much about it – at least not about heroism.

We read of Abraham and Isaac – each of whom is heroic in his response to a call that will lead to death of one and oblivion of the other.

And Hannah, who prays for a son and then gives him up.

Or Rachel, weeping for her children, being taken into exile.

The central Jewish question is not “what is worth dying for?” It is, rather, “what is worth living for?”  And what we find is that for Jews, dying is not heroic. Living is heroic. Death is not what it’s all about. Life is. Living with the certain knowledge of our own mortality. Living in the face of death. Making choices for ourselves and for our children to do the right thing despite the reality of death.

We live in a subjectivist culture.  It is a culture that insists that, since what is heroic for you is not necessarily heroic for me, therefore there is no real act of heroism.

How foolish. How wrong. How un-Jewish.

What is a Jewish hero? I’m guessing that some of you had photos on your walls of Golda Meir, or Sandy Koufax, or Moshe Dayan, or Mark Spitz. Nearly 2,000 years ago, one of our greatest sages, a student and colleague of Rabbi Akiba asked and answered this question. Ben Zoma asks, Eizeh hu gibor? – Who is a hero? His answer: Ha-kovesh et yitzro – One who conquers his own yetzer: his own biology, his own urges.

On the one hand, this is a powerful statement to us about the difficulty of overcoming our animal tendencies, our passions, our lusts, our addictions, our selfishness, our urge for power, our urge to destroy.

And were that all he said, dayeinu – it would have been more than enough.

But when Ben Zoma says that a hero is one who can overcome his biology, perhaps he is also saying that a hero is one who is able to live positively in the face of our ultimate biological reality, which is death.

Ben Zoma is teaching his community – and us as well – is that every single human being can be a hero. It does not depend upon circumstances, since all of us face the same eventuality, and we all share a common mortality.

So what does it mean to be a Jewish hero?

It means to look death square in the face, to acknowledge that our lives are short (by any measure), to understand that we have no reason to expect that anyone will know that we once lived two hundred years from now… or far sooner. It means to understand, with Ecclesiastes, that all human beings share the same fate, and yet to stand up in the face of that overwhelming fact of human existence and live a heroic life despite that reality.

It means to be engaged with life and this world. It means to connect our lives and our energies to others. It means investing ourselves in people and institutions. It means not wasting our time. It means not putting off to the indefinite future those things that are needed today.

It means small gestures as well as grand ones – living a life of mitzvoth. Living a life of gemilut chasadim – acts of lovingkindness.

It means that despite our mortality – and because of our mortality – truly livingha-yom! Today, each day.

Heroism is not in the genes. It is learned. And practiced. I am constantly learning how to be a better human being by observing the many Jewish heroes in this community. I may be a professional teacher, but it is you who are teaching me. And you are teaching others as well. The great character trait of heroes is in how they respond to adversity and failure and loss.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Each man is a hero and oracle to somebody.” You may or may not know it, but many, many of you are my heroes. I am surrounded by heroes. That is the wonder of being a rabbi. With all the challenges of working to build and maintain an institution, it never ceases to amaze me how many quiet heroes I meet in any given week.

Life is about the simple things, not the grand gesture. And Jewish heroism is in doing those simple things.

Make this year a year of heroism – your own. Embrace life, even in the certain knowledge of our ultimate end. Especially in that knowledge. Each of you is a hero and oracle to somebody. Already. And each of you can make choices in the coming days and months to live your life more heroically than you are today.

You owe it to your ancestors. You owe it to your descendants. You owe it to yourself.

Shana tova u’metuka.