“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work — whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you . . . “ — Leviticus 16:29
A note to our readers: This week marks the continuation of the ten days between the start of Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, known as the Days of Awe or the Days of Repentance. It is a time of serious introspection in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, , which will be observed on Sept. 30. It is considered the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Our devotions throughout this week are tied to this biblically mandated observance.
Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal. When the Bible instructs, “you must deny yourselves,” it refers to five “denials” in particular. In the Jewish tradition, during Yom Kippur, we don’t eat or drink, wash our bodies, beautify ourselves with creams and cosmetics, engage in marital relations, or wear leather shoes. In other words, we stay away from anything especially physical. As we stand in synagogue with nothing but our deeds behind us and God before us, awaiting judgment for the year to come, we are practicing for our final judgment. In essence, Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for death.
When God created the world, He said the same thing on every day of Creation: “it was good” (Genesis 1). There is one exception to that rule. On the sixth day God said, “and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The Jewish sages teach that while “it was good” refers to the potential for life that God had created, “very good” refers to the potential for death. What is so “very good” about death?
Steve Jobs, the famous founder of Apple who died at age 56 from cancer, once said: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share . . . And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
Knowing we will die influences how we live.
On Yom Kippur, men traditionally wear a kittel, a burial shroud – the very same garment in which they will one day be buried. This is not a morbid or depressing gesture. Rather, it reacquaints us with “Life’s change agent.” It encourages us to let go of old habits in favor of some newer, better, and more godly life choices.
I’ve never forgotten this easy, yet effective, exercise that I first encountered in Stephen Covey’s illustrious Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In this simple visualization, perfect for the High Holy Days, one imagines his or her funeral. We think about the eulogies that might be given. What would our family members say? What would our co-workers say? How about our friends? What about our spiritual leader? After envisioning what these significant people from all areas of our lives might say about us, comes the most important question: What would we like them to say?
Knowing how we would like to be remembered teaches us how we should live. In forcing us to face the inevitable end of life, Yom Kippur propels us toward making the best of the time we do have. And that, indeed, is “very good.”