October 1, 2008
Poetry and Taxis
Parshat Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30)
"So much of a writer's life consists of assumed suffering, rhetorical suffering, that I felt something like relief, even elation, when the doctor told me that I had cancer of the prostate. Suddenly there was in the air a rich sense of crisis, real crisis, yet one that also contained echoes of ideas like the crisis of language, the crisis of literature, or of personality. It seemed to me that my existence, whatever I thought, felt or did, had taken on a kind of meter, as in poetry or in taxis."
So begins Anatole Broyard's book, "Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death," a book published posthumously after Broyard died in 1990 from advanced prostate cancer.
I cannot imagine feeling elation when facing cancer, but Broyard's point haunts me: When we lose sight of death, we let life slip away. When we think we have forever, days fade into weeks and months. Didn't we just finish Pesach? How is Rosh Hashanah already here again? Another year has slipped away.
Ask yourself, "Was my year lived with poetry?" Or must we wait (hope?) for illness and death to awaken us from a living sleep?
Parshat Vayeilech begins, "Moshe went and spoke these words to all of Israel. He said to them, 'I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I can no longer go out and come in, for Adonai has said to me, 'You shall not cross this Jordan'" (Deuteronomy 31:1-2).
Rashi says Moshe knew he only had hours to live: "Today my days and years are complete; on this day I was born, and on this day, I will die."
Based on the Zohar, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar teaches that holy people can sense their impending death; they can tell when their souls are leaving their bodies and "visiting" their eventual resting place in the world above.
Knowing that he will die today, what does Moshe do with the last moments of his life? Does he buy a fast camel and feel the wind in his hair? Does he have a fling? No. Moshe goes and speaks to Israel. He tells them God will be with them as they enter the land. He tells them, "Be strong and courageous" (Deuteronomy 31:6), and he summons Joshua in front of all of Israel and tells him the same (Deuteronomy 31:7). Moshe works to place Joshua firmly as his successor knowing his death approaches, knowing they also will need another leader.
The parsha begins, "Moshe went," and because the Torah does not specify, commentators ask: "Where did Moshe go?"
Nachmanidies answers by picturing Moshe going to the tent of each Israelite to honor them, "like someone who wishes to take leave of his friend and comes to ask permission of him."
Seforno says he went to comfort Israel about his impending death, so that the joy of the covenant, which they had just entered into with God, would not be diminished. Ever his people's shepherd, Moshe tends to his flock, comforts them and seeks to lift their spirits, even as the final hours and minutes of his life slip away.
What I find most instructive about all of these stories is that faced with the end of his life, Moshe does what he has always done; he continues to lead the people. Death does not change him because his life has been well lived.
Rosh Hashanah is here again. Was your year lived well? What would you do if, God forbid, you knew you only had a year, or a month, or a week, or a day to live? Would it change you?
After Rabbi Eliezer said, "Repent one day before your death," his disciples asked him, "Does one know the day he will die?"
Rabbi Eliezer replied, "All the more reason to repent today, lest one die tomorrow" (Shabbat 153a).
Repent today. Change today.
Broyard concluded the opening essay of his book by describing how "[t]he British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott began an autobiography that he never finished. The first paragraph simply says, 'I died.' In the fifth paragraph he writes, 'Let me see. What was happening when I died? My prayer had been answered. I was alive when I died. That was all I had asked for and I had got it.' Though he never finished his book, he gave the best reason in the world for writing one, and that's why I want to write mine -- to make sure I'll be alive when I die."
Broyard was a writer. Moshe was a leader. Both died living.
Do not wait for illness or death to come. Live with meter, as in poetry or in taxis.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.
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