Of Life, Death and the Hebrew Month of Elul

Of Life, Death and the Hebrew Month of Elul


Life and death can be found at the heart of the Jewish High Holy Days, poetically captured in an ancient Rosh Hashanah prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef.

Shofar“On Rosh Hashanah,” the prayer reads, “it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die . . .”

The image is clear. On the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah falls the first week of September this year – G-d stands before the “Book of Life” and writes down the names of the righteous. Ten days later, on the Day of Atonement, the book is shut and sealed.

I’ve heard the prayer chanted for decades, but a few years ago the melancholy words took on a more insistent tone. G-d got my attention, a little tap on the shoulder that forced me to examine my mortality and helped me understand that I won’t be living forever.

It all began with a CT scan that picked up a few worrisome blips, shadows that the doctor described as nodules. He never said tumor, never said malignant, never said cancer. But that’s what I was hearing, until he told me that such scans are often “over- read” and the information he was sharing would probably turn out to be nothing.

He suggested I have another test in a few months, just to be on the safe side. And that was my plan. It lasted two days, until a nurse from my internist’s office called and said her boss had just received the scan and we needed to do another – soon! My fear turned to despair when yet another doctor called a day later and told me he’d also seen the report and, by the way, there seemed to be a “lesion” in another part of my body.

I listened, for the moment stunned and silent, trying to make sense of his words. Who shall live and who shall die? The High Holiday abstraction had turned coldly concrete.

Of course we’re all going to die, a thought that remains a painless cliché until the shadow of death rests heavily on our doorstep and we’re forced to confront the reality of limited tomorrows.

The issue is to be found throughout the liturgy of the Jewish High Holidays and is the emotional core of the Unetaneh Tokef, a prayer that becomes a statement of moral certitude when it suggests that there also can be a “why” to death, that in some fashion “good” and “bad” and spiritual engagement are part of the equation.

“But repentance, prayer and righteousness,” we’re promised, “avert the severe decree.” Well, maybe.

The earliest the second scan could be scheduled – and I remind everyone that this was several years ago – was the middle of the next week. I had five days – and five long nights – to wonder if the shadows hidden away in my body were waging war or, simply, shadows.

And then something interesting happened. When it all became too much, when the darkness momentarily filled my world, I remembered the words of the Psalmist.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou are with me …” And slowly, the curse of waiting, of not knowing, of fearing the worst, turned to a blessing. After all, I wasn’t alone.

I woke the next morning to a sense of freedom, both engaged yet removed from the normal give-and-take of life. Daily snags seemed less insistent, daily joys more intense. I found myself shrugging off my armor and lowering my guard, no longer needing to keep people at a distance. I walked more, talked more and prayed more. I cried more and laughed more. I waited.

And then one morning a few days later, I lay down on a gurney and was gently bobbed into the metallic belly of another CT scanner. Gears hummed and whirred and a technology that borders on the miraculous took hold while I held my breath and prayed. The scan took only minutes and the results came just a few hours later.

The nodules were shadows, background clutter of little consequence; and the lesion was a cyst, worth watching but of no immediate concern. The elation of the moment has faded. The impact remains.

In a few weeks, I will be back in synagogue, playing out the script of the holiday period. The “Book of Life” will be opened and cosmic decisions will be made. The righteous, we are told, need not fear, but for the rest of us there will once again be an urgent tone in the blast of the shofar and the prayers of the congregation.

It’s the Hebrew month of Elul and it’s time to prepare!

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