One of my favorite stories is one told of a great rabbi and mystic who lived several centuries ago, Rabbi Menachem Mendal of Kotzk. He asked his students, “What would you do if you knew you had only one more week to live?” The first answered, “I would spend it with my family,” another said, “I would spend it doing mitzvoth, good acts of kindness,” a third said” I would spend it studying Torah, meditating and praying.” Then they turned to Rabbi Menachem Mendal and asked him, rabbi, “and what would you do?” Answered the rabbi, “I would do what I do every day.”
I have often wondered what it would be like to know I was dying. We all are, you know. Religion runs the risk of missing this. Often it either focuses on a different world after death, and so misses the impact of living here and now in a way informed by the reality of our death, or fixated on how to perform the details of this life, its proscriptions, beliefs and rituals, shrinking the space humans have in which to sit back and really feel the great reality of death; that we are dying and on some level, for even the most profound believer, death brings with it annihilation, nonbeing as we know it.
Some will instinctively dismiss this notion with, “yes, but for a better life with God.” Perhaps, but even if that is so, if we do not give ourselves the opportunity to know we are dying, to feel the dread of oblivion first, then we have ignored an important gift. Being human, truly being present in the here and now, means knowing we will cease to be. Many deny death, ignore death in these and other much more superficial ways, but to live in a state of avoidance is perhaps to not really live.
How would you live if you knew we are dying? (Which again I remind you, we are.) What regrets do you have? What changes can be made? What letters written? What experiences had? What really is meaningful and what is not? Why are we here? What is my unique place and mission in this mysterious, but I believe meaningful, world?
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