In just a few days, I’ll be standing on the bimah, wearing my kittel. It’s a 35-year-old traditional Jewish cotton garment that I put on for the first time as I stood under the huppah, waiting for my bride to walk down the aisle. And ever since I wear it every Passover Seder and every Yom Kippur. The last time I will wear it is when the Hevreh Kaddisha dresses me in it before they lay me down in my coffin.
Until recently, the fact that my kittel is my death shroud has felt very abstract if not surreal. I’ve talked about it from the bimah for decades without any kind of hesitation. But I must admit that it seems just a bit different these days. No, I’m not sick or enfeebled – in fact, I feel great! It’s just I’ve attained a growing recognition that I’ve lived the majority of my years.
I now understand why the rabbis suggested the kittel for Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a call to death. Throughout the 25 hours of this day, we descend into death as we fast, eschew bathing, and spend the day in the synagogue, turning our backs on the world. We leave both the natural and the material worlds, distancing ourselves from commerce and community, from the cacophony of the marketplace and the comforts of home. We enter into the subdued light of the synagogue, read prepared liturgies, and chant the Torah with the particular trope of these Awesome days. The day stretches on, and we go more deeply inward, discovering, perhaps, a well of quiet of which we were unaware… http://goo.gl/aDpNeD
In this peculiar and challenging space we have a few options. One of them is to truly contemplate the finitude of life. This can be instructive in that it forces us to reflect on what we’ve done with our lives. From this vantage point however, we can also encounter no small amount of despair. We can begin to count off regrets and failings.
Or we can use the time to say, in effect: Here I am. I acknowledge that I am mortal and that everyone I know and love is mortal, too. How do I want to live? There’s not much utility in actively contemplating all the ways I might die. But there’s a whole lot of things that can happen when I contemplate all the ways I might live.
True, my kittel is a reminder of death’s slow and inexorable approach. But it doesn’t have to be a garment of mourning. It reminds me that, like standing at the Sea of Reeds on Passover, like standing under the huppah, Yom Kippur is about redemptive moments yet to come. Rather than mourn about how little time I may have left, I can exalt in every minute that is about love and connection.