You don’t have to be a Jewish scholar to note a glaring difference between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Jan. 1, the secular New Year.
The former is solemn while the latter is boisterous. And one reason for Rosh Hashanah’s solemnity is the central question that it confronts: “Who will live and who will die [in the coming year]?”
The High Holy Days liturgy is meant to force us to confront our mortality. And that is not a particularly jovial subject.
Is this a good thing?
I think it is. As Samuel Johnson put it a long time ago, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”
The fact is that knowing we will die is one of the most beneficial realizations we can have.
First, death forces us to value time. If we never died, why would we do anything we didn’t absolutely have to do?
Why read a book today when you know that you can just as easily put off reading it for a year, or for that matter, a hundred years?
Knowing that our time is limited forces us use it more productively. Years ago, a Swiss lawyer, after being told that he had incurable cancer, wrote a book during his last year of life. Among the first things he decided to do was to stop watching television.
Well before I read about that book, at a young age, I remember thinking that, in terms of using time wisely, it would be a good thing to live as if one had a terminal illness.
For the fact is that we all do have a terminal condition — life itself.
Rosh Hashanah asks us — no, it demands of us — that we lead our lives knowing we can die any day. Because nearly every one of us would lead our lives differently if we were told we had a year to live.
Second, death confers wisdom.
Knowing that we will die gives us wisdom: Death puts things into perspective.
Knowing that we will die clarifies what is important and what is trivial. It is one reason that human beings have always associated age with wisdom.
The usual explanation for associating age with wisdom is the longer one lives, the more wisdom one accumulates through increased life experiences. But I believe something else is at least as much at work here. And that is that the older one gets, the closer to death one gets. If people could expect to live, let us say, 500 years, I am not sure that 80-year-olds would have as much wisdom as they do today.
As people get old, they are more likely to believe in God. This is often dismissed as a function of their fear of death. But I submit it is not fear of death nearly as much as it is the reality of death that makes older people more likely to believe in God.
When you stare death in the face, you get a lot a more clarity about life. And one of those clarity realizations is that if there is no God, this whole thing called life has been no more than a charade: We make believe things matter, but they really don’t.
The same holds true with belief in an afterlife. When people are young and think they will live forever, the idea of an afterlife can seem both irrational and unimportant. But when you confront death, it becomes far more difficult — not just emotionally, but intellectually — to say, “This life is all there is.”
Another proof of how much death clarifies what is important is the funeral.
It is well worth paying attention to eulogies. If you do, you will notice that much of what we deem to be of major significance is virtually never even mentioned in any of the eulogies for the deceased.
For example, many parents (Jewish ones most certainly) deem what college their children get into to be the most important goal of their child’s life. Virtually everything is dedicated to that goal — getting into the best preschool, the best elementary school, the best junior high and high school, getting the best grades, and spending whatever it takes.
But have you ever heard any eulogy mention — even in passing — what college the deceased attended? Has any rabbi, priest, minister, spouse, child or friend of the deceased ever said anything like, “We will miss Sam, who, you will recall, attended Harvard”?
Eulogies — the ultimate confrontation with death — force us to talk about what is truly important: “We will miss Sam. Sam was a wonderful husband, a devoted father, a loyal and giving friend. He loved life. He had a happy disposition. He was an honest man, etc., etc.”
Finally, death increases our love of just about everything in life.
Death forces us to value the quotidian. Those diagnosed with a terminal illness value sunsets and flowers and rain showers and people more than they did before their diagnosis.
So, for all these reasons Rosh Hashanah focuses on our mortality. That is why, ironically, while the theme resonates far more with the old, it is the young who most need it. Because the sooner people appreciate their mortality, the sooner they will value what is truly important: goodness, sunsets, people — and, yes, God and religion.
Who will die this coming year? Maybe you and maybe me.
What is certain is that confronting the question will make for a better year.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 970 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarprCollins, 2012).