As I mentioned in a different blog there is a problem with things that are circular. Ostensibly they have neither a beginning nor an end. Life and time are like that as well. While it’s true that life has a definite beginning and a clear ending, our day-to-day life seems unending, one day leading into the next in a very long blur (for those of us who have merited to live as long as we have).
This problem, say our sages, ob”m, is echoed in the tradition to say to someone who sneezes “gesundheit!” or “sante” or “l’vriut” (in English “Good health” or “G-d bless you!”). According to our sages, a very long time ago it was not uncommon for people to live extremely long, young and healthy lives. To the extent that a person would be walking along the road one day, he would stop to sneeze… and die. There was no preparation for death, it followed the precursor of a sneeze. As a result, whenever anyone would sneeze people would pray for his/her health, in the hopes that this person wouldn’t immediately die.
This began to change with our forefather Avraham (Abraham) who prayed to HaShem that as a person gets older, he or she should show signs of aging. The reason our sages, ob”m, give for this request was to mark those people with greater life experience, so that if a father and son walk into a room together, everyone would recognize which of them was more deserving of the respect of age. It is for this reason that Avraham is the first person that the Torah calls old (zaken).
Things changed further with our father Yitzchak (Isaac), who requested of HaShem that before a person passes away, they should experience weakness and sickness so that they should recognize that the end is coming and prepare for it. It is for this reason that the Torah says concerning Yitzchak that when he became elderly that he could no longer see.
Both of these things are looked at with horror in today’s society, and a great many billions (trillions?) of dollars are spent on products that alleviate both the aging (to some extent) and the sickness (also, only to some extent). I’m not raising these issues to discuss the topic or the accuracy of the stories, but rather to pointify the issue that I opened up with: left to our own devices we would let life slip by until it was too late to do anything about it, and a more positive way of looking at aging and the accompanying sickness.
If we let our life be a circle, if we live day-to-day with no thought about how we are using our lives, we will keep on going around and around in the merry-go-round that is life until – all of a sudden – the ride is over.
Another problem that arises, as a result, is the feeling of some amount of pre-destiny. The thought that “I woke up on the wrong side of bed” kind of accompanies us throughout the day, the week, the month, the year, and even possibly throughout life… if you are riding the aforementioned merry-go-round. “What can I do?” we say to ourselves “I got up on the wrong side of bed?” As if that predestines our entire life to follow some foreboding pattern.
In steps Rosh Hashana. It steps the Ten Days of Repentance.
During this time of the year, we are afforded the opportunity to break the cycle of life that we have been trapped in. We are told that it is a time where we are to be judged, we are told that Rosh Hashana is the date of the judgment and that we are then afforded time to make an appeal if we are in need of an appeal (and most of us are). However, to real question is do I have the fortitude to take a close look at my own life?
I probably mentioned this in a previous blog, but one of the core conversations (along with my Core Emunah series, of course!) that I have with my students, my children, and anyone else who listens is the one concerning life’s most fundamental question “What are you living for?” I’m not talking about in the cosmic scheme of things (although I did discuss that in 4 other blogs here, this, for example), I’m talking about this from a personal perspective.
“If you had no need for money at all, what would you do with yourself?” is a very fundamental question. Would you “spend” your time on shuffleboard, bridge, bowling and any other “sport” that catches your fancy? Go to the local bookstore (or maybe just download a whole bunch) to get books to read in an end-to-end read-a-thon? Would you watch all of the seasons of … whatever until your rear-end is black and blue from pressure wounds?
The reality is that most people don’t have this dilemma, because they are not among the mega-wealth. So, many of them say to me “That’s just a fantasy, Rabbi. I have to go to learn a trade/get a degree and get a job.” Ok. That’s true, and I am fine with that. The reality of life is that 90% of people need a job in order to get by. “But let’s put that in perspective,” I say to them. “What is your job for? In reality it has only one purpose: to get you the ability to pay for your daily existence. It doesn’t really matter what the job is. Its most basic function is that.” I think that we can all agree that this is true. Now, I don’t mean to say that a person shouldn’t look for a profession that interests him. As the saying goes “If you enjoy what you do, you never work a day in your life.” However, the reality of life is that the vast majority of people HATE their jobs. Whenever I have asked the question during a lecture “How many people here like their jobs?” very few hands go up. “How many hate their jobs?” I ask, and it looks like they are trying to do the “wave” at a baseball stadium.
“Now, let’s make a calculation” I then tell them. “Every day of your life is only 24 hours long (why the secular world doesn’t know. But I have a blog on the topic that you can find here). Out of your 24-hour day you have around 7 that you sleep, another 9 that you work, usually around another hour of commuting time (at least!) – that’s already 17 hours of your day gone. If we include the time that it takes to shower, go to the bathroom, and all sorts of other menial chores (which nobody really wants to do, but has to do it anyway) it turns out that you have 5 hours left in your day. These 5 hours are the “you” time, to do with whatever you want to do – how do you use them?” I ask.
The truth is that the difference between a person who has an entire day ahead of them and someone who has only 5 hours is only a matter of quantity. Perhaps some quality too. After all, if I have put in a long workday, it is only normal that I am tired. But this is the “moment of truth”! This is when I can use my time to do that which is important to me. BUT WHAT IS THAT?
Is it something that uses my time in a positive and constructive way, or is it something that allows the time to slip by painlessly? To put it bluntly, am I living my life, or am I waiting impatiently for my death to finally get here?
Rosh Hashana and the Ten Days of Repentance come once a year to force our hand. To make us, (please G-d!) think about our life and what we are doing with it. To make an accounting of how we spent the last year, and to reassess how to do it better in the coming year, if I am found deserving of such. They are one of the most powerful gifts that man is given, if only we use them, and use them well.
Utilized well, we are offered a new beginning, the chance to change my life and wipe the slate clean, as only real teshuva, real repentance can bring. Zeh hayom techilat ma’asecha, zikaron l’yom rishon, (This day is the beginning of your actions, in memory of the first day), say our sages, ob”m, in the liturgy of the prayers during these days.
Do you look back, and wish you had done things differently? Then grab this opportunity “by the horns”, because HKB”H is offering you a new lease on life. If we truly repent in front of HaShem, as is laid out in the Rambam’s Laws of Repentance, chapter 1:
If we have done all that, then we have done all that is humanly possible and have walked the path of teshuva. We are given a new lease on life and a new opportunity to do something and be something else.
Now, all you have to
do is follow-through. Go live the life that you always wanted: a life of life!
 Rashi on this verse states that if a person reaches within 5 years of the age of either of his/her parents when they passed it is correct to start preparing for this eventuality. For maybe he’ll only make it to the age of the parent who passed at a younger age.