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High Holidays Feature: Facing Mortality on Holy Days, One Learns to Live Life More Fully

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From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are 10 days of repentance, set aside for self-assessment and correction of lifestyle.

The tradition asks us to face our mortality, to review the way we live in light of the fact that we will die.

That is why I want to tell you about my father-in-law’s death.

Rabbi Sam Genauer died a week before Tisha B’Av. He had the kind of death that we all wish for but is increasingly rare.

He was 40 days away from his 91st birthday. He was at home in the midst of the family that was the center and priority of his life. Great-grandchildren ran in and out of his room, playing with subdued glee; his devoted wife and gentle caretakers were in the next room, ready and responsive to his requests.

He was having a quiet conversation with two of his grandsons. Suddenly the breathing slowed down and stopped. He was gone. Peacefully.

In fact, Genauer was learning Torah — as he loved to do all the time with all of his grandchildren. In the last weeks of his life, he would grow too tired to carry on conversation in the evening. Then he liked to get into bed and to have someone learn with him by reading a passage from the Mishnah or Talmud.

He would close his eyes, gradually drift off and soon be asleep. To see if he was still listening, you would read the passage and pause in the middle. He would insert the next few words — then you knew he was still awake. His last words filled in the blessing for wine: “Blessed be God, Our Lord Ruler of the Universe who creates the fruit of the vine.”

With those final words of blessing, scant seconds later, his soul returned to its maker in what the Talmud calls “death (sealed) with a kiss.”

The odds are overwhelming — better than 4-1 — that you and I will not have such a blessed death. Over 80 percent of American deaths now occur in the hospital. The percentage has almost doubled in the past half-century, and it is still rising.

As life expectancy has increased, a host of illnesses that attack the elderly have come to the fore.

Alzheimer’s disease, which robs the memory and breaks down bodily control, primarily strikes older people — 11 percent of Americans over the age of 65 have the disease. An almost equal number have dementing illnesses of other sorts.

The rates of strokes, various cancers and diseases of the heart increase as we age. Given the advances in medical science, most of these diseases will be fought with powerful weapons — making a personal end in a hospital more likely.

These developments summon the specter that currently haunts Americans — life ebbing away with the individual tethered to a host of tubes and machines. These processes are intended to resist death, but gradually the treatments take away life’s choices and remove the individual from home, from the network of family and friends, from the simple, everyday connections that give life dignity.

The medicalization of the end of life has released a paroxysm of concern for death with dignity.

As Dr. Sherwin Nuland says in his extraordinary book “How We Die,” however, death comes “out of a series of destructive events that involve by their very nature” disintegration. There is often not “much dignity in the process by which we die.”

Rosh Hashanah is predicated on the belief that death with dignity can only come out of a life with dignity — a life worth living. In every moment of life, we are continuously choosing either life or death. An evil life represents the choice of death — to deal death to others or to rob their life of its dignity.

Sometimes, we choose to live life uninvolved, wasting our capacity to love. Sometimes, we enter into destructive habits that undermine our health. Sometimes we choose not to use our minds or to drift through life without trying to repair the world. All of these actions represent the choice of death.

But in the prophetic words incorporated into liturgy of the High Holy Days, God does “not desire the death of the wicked one but that he turn from his way and live.”

The message of Rosh Hashanah can be simply stated: Stop and realize that death is the inevitable outcome of your life. This realization should jolt you into using the infinite gift — life itself — constructively, lovingly, to achieve the dignity of living.

To do that you will have to have your priorities straight, as my father-in-law did.

You will not let work consume your entire life. Because life is short, you will want to spend time and share life with the people you love. You will realize that you should not allow a desire for short-term advantage to override your values.

You will forge connections that will result in many people accompanying you at every step of life’s journey, including the inescapable passage of death. This is the true measure of the life that we lead.

Can a person in agony from cancer — sedated, sustained by respirator, unable to speak — have any dignity?

The answer is yes: Even here, the dignity exists in the network of family, friends and community whose lives are intertwined with one’s own. Their love and concern remain — even as the physical body is being taken away from them, even as the infirmities overwhelm their capacity to take care of you.

When death has claimed your body, the memory, the love, the contribution will live on as a source of blessing and a model to emulate, writes Neuland.

That is why Rosh Hashanah, the holiday when we face our mortality, is a day of celebration. Facing death, we learn to live life more fully. Or as Nuland puts it: “The art of dying is the art of living.”

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