To know you are to die

D’var Torah
Rabbi David Benjamin Fainsilber
July 14, 2017 // 21 Tammuz 5777
Parashat Pinchas

Rabbi Alan Lew, zichrono livracha, may his memory be for a blessing,
a practitioner of Zen Buddhist meditation
and an acclaimed Rabbi in the Bay Area,
is perhaps most well-known for his book,
This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared:
The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

By tracing the cycle of the High Holidays,
Rabbi Lew takes us on the ultimate journey
towards facing our own mortality at this season,
our yearly cycle of death and rebirth,
and by doing so, we learn to live a life full of purpose.
Though September may seem at a distance right now,
this past week, we actually began the long High Holiday cycle
by marking the 17th day of the month of Tammuz.
This is a day where we commemorate
the breach in the walls of the old city of Jerusalem,
which ultimately lead to the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’av.
Rabbi Lew paints a picture of the cycle of the summer and fall months
as a time of destruction and rebirth, from life to death to life renewed.

The title of his book is a meditation in and of itself,
a Jewish-Zen-life paradox to ponder.
This Is Real —
What does he mean?
Life is real? Ultimate reality? Existence? Facing our deaths?
This Is Real …and…You Are Completely Unprepared —
Can we ever be prepared for life?
Or to face the death of loved ones or own own mortality?
Certainly not.

In 2009, having retired from his pulpit in the Bay area,
Rabbi Lew was on the East Coast,
spending some time teaching other rabbis.
He had said his morning prayers;
he led a meditation for the participants, and then he went for a jog.
While jogging, he died suddenly.

Some us will die like this,
completely and suddenly and without any notice.
Yet others will know more information in advance from doctors
that we are to die sooner rather than later.

In this week’s Torah portion of Pinchas,
we learn that Moses knew well in advance about his own death.


Numbers 27
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עֲלֵ֛ה אֶל־הַ֥ר הָעֲבָרִ֖ים הַזֶּ֑ה וּרְאֵה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תִּי לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
וְרָאִ֣יתָה אֹתָ֔הּ וְנֶאֱסַפְתָּ֥ אֶל־עַמֶּ֖יךָ גַּם־אָ֑תָּה
G-d said to Moses, “Ascend these heights of Abarim
and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people.
When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin…
[You too shall die.]

Imagine the possibility of dying like Moses,
knowing where and when and how you are going to die.

Moses’ first reaction to G-d’s command was this:
יִפְקֹ֣ד יְהוָ֔ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י הָרוּחֹ֖ת לְכָל־בָּשָׂ֑ר אִ֖ישׁ עַל־הָעֵדָֽה׃
Let G-d, Source of the Breath of All Flesh,
appoint someone over the community…
Moses was concerned primarily that the people
would have a leader in Joshua to guide them into the Promised Land,
and to fulfill the promise given by G-d.
His singular concern in facing his death
was to care about the people around him,
rather than caring for his own needs.

So too, where we sit in our Torah cycle,
we are a far cry from the end of reading our Torah.
Moses has miles of words, orations and teachings, to share with the people.
As he knew his life was coming to a close,
he wished to unabashedly share his wisdom and life experience
with those closest to him, his people.
In so doing, he left a legacy of reflection and meditation
that has reverberated throughout the world,
across generations and people.

This week in the life of our congregation,
we lost one of our own JCOGS members, Gary Jacobson,
husband of Wendy Jacobson and father of Drew and Sean.
Though he had been sick for some time,
there was, until the final days, and perhaps even then,
a hope that he could sustain life.
Gary was taken too early in life.
From how he led his life,
we glean so much about how each of us ought to live life,
for Gary knew how to live so fully.
He knew how to hold onto the priorities that are essential in the everyday.
He lived a life of family and love, and a life of service to others.
His own concern in facing his death
was to care about the people around him,
his wife and two sons.


All of us know we are going to pass from this world at some point.
Some of us will be taken quickly; some of us too early;
others may know more in advance.
And we are completely unprepared.

Our Torah teaches us that
regardless how we might die,
we would all do better and live better
if we faced our mortality now, in the present,
to meditate on what we cannot ultimately prepare for.

Let’s take a moment in meditation to consider:
When faced with the possibility of your own death,
What is most important to you?
Where are your priorities in life?

To end, in his book, Rabbi Lew recounts the following story:
“There is a story about Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.
One day his older brother died,
and a newspaper got the story wrong
and printed Alfred’s obituary instead.
Alfred opened the paper that morning
and had the unusual experience of reading his obituary
while he was still alive.
‘Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways
to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday,’
the obituary began.
Alfred threw down the paper.
‘That’s not how I want to be remembered’, he said.
‘That’s not what’s important to me’, he said,
and right then and there he decided
to throw his entire fortune into rewarding people
for bettering this world and bringing it closer to peace.”

What are our true priorities?
How will we spend our days?

May the cycle of our year bring us pause,
and cause us to reflect on what is important.
And may the memories of beloved ones who have passed
be a blessing, through our own lives.