Come… And Prepare to Go

A few days before my mother died, I sat by her bedside with my phone in my hand. It had been a tough morning. Even with the oxygen cannula in her nose she had struggled to breathe. She was anxious and she was clearly suffering, and she kept asking, “when will the pain stop?” We gave her morphine, and we gave her morphine again, and eventually she drifted into sleep. 

For about two years I’d been working on editing a volume for mourners called Beside Still Waters. We were almost ready to go to press. I had the manuscript on my phone, and while my mother slept I pulled up the section of viduim, confessional prayers to recite before death. I whispered, in Hebrew and in English, words of deathbed confession on her behalf:

Grant me and the beloveds of my heart, whose souls are bound with mine, the grace to accept this turning of the wheel of life. Before You, God of Mercy and Grace who pardons iniquity and does not destroy, I forgive all who harmed me in my life. May their hearts be at ease, as I release all anger and pain from them into the dust of the earth. As I have forgiven, so may You forgive me all my shortcomings. By this merit, preserve my soul in peace…1

And when I was finished with the words on my screen, I sat there for a while just praying the same thing over and over: please God let it be gentle. 

Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. Some of us wear white, symbol of purity, like the white shrouds in which all Jewish dead are buried. Some of us fast from food and drink and sex, life’s temporary pleasures that the dead no longer enjoy. Some of us eschew leather shoes — a custom also practiced during shiva — because stiff leather shoes represent what protects our tender hearts from the world, and at Yom Kippur and during shiva alike, our hearts are meant to be soft and open. 

On Yom Kippur we all recite a vidui prayer. We recite it evening and morning and afternoon and again before nightfall, affirming together that we know we have fallen short, alphabetizing a list of our missings-of-the-mark. On Yom Kippur we recite the vidui in the plural: we have sinned, we seek forgiveness. Before death, the vidui is recited in the singular.  I have fallen short… And from the awareness that I have missed the mark comes the next step, so necessary before leaving this life: I forgive. I ask forgiveness. 

Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. It’s also a day of recognizing our losses: today is one of the four times of the year when we say Yizkor, the memorial prayers, reconnecting with the memory of those who have died. It’s a day of facing mortality, not only our own but everyone’s. And despite all of these, it’s meant to be a day of profound joy. Because this day is the culmination of the season’s journey of inner work, and by the close of this day we’re supposed to know ourselves to be forgiven. 

How do we square that circle? How can today be a day of preparing for death, bracing for loss, and also a day of exultation and joy? 

My answer to that question this year comes from my mother, of blessed memory, and what she taught me in her final days of life. 

A few days before my mother died, I was sitting with her in her room and I seized the moment. We were alone together, and I didn’t know if I would get another chance to speak with her without my dad or my child or another family member in the room. So I knelt next to her wheelchair and I said something like: Mom, I’m so glad that you were my mother. And if you’re tired and you’re ready to go, it’s okay — we’ll be okay. 

She got weepy for a minute. (We both did.) She said “I should be thanking you!” And then she straightened in her chair and said, “Let’s go downstairs, it’s cocktail hour.” 

That was my mom. She texted her children when she entered hospice, reminding us not to be maudlin. She didn’t want us to be sad; she wanted us to celebrate.

I can laugh about it now, “it’s cocktail hour,” “don’t be maudlin,” but my mom was teaching me something. On that last Friday of her life, the day that began with her struggling to breathe and needing morphine again and again — the day when I whispered the deathbed vidui on her behalf, afraid she might not be verbal again — she rallied in the early evening. 

To everyone’s surprise, she came downstairs, where all five of her children and one of her grandchildren were gathered for Shabbat dinner. With the oxygen cannula in her nose she drank wine, and she ate steak, and she visibly enjoyed being with us. 

That night, as she lay back on her pillows, she murmured, “It’s been too short, but it’s been sweet.” My son and I were leaving early the next morning, and I thought: maybe she means our visit… and maybe she means the last 83 years. I didn’t ask. I told her I loved her one more time, I kissed her goodnight, and I went downstairs. We left Texas at the blessed crack of dawn. Four days later, we returned for her funeral. 

I learned from my mother in her last days to “make hay while the sun shines.” To enjoy what life gives me to enjoy while I am here to enjoy it. To be grateful for what’s good, and to let go of what’s not. Because no matter how long we live, life is too short to do otherwise. 

Ten years ago when my son was an infant, my mother came with me to a rabbinic school residency to take care of the baby while I was in class. She befriended some people, because that was Mom: always interested in, and curious about, those around her. And one evening she said to me, with an air of amazement, “Rachel, I think everyone here is a spiritual seeker!”

I said, “Of course they are, Mom. They’re in rabbinical school.” 

And she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever searched for anything my whole life!”

I don’t actually believe that, for the record. I think that for a variety of reasons she was invested in seeing herself as an ordinary person, not “spiritual” or “a seeker” or “on a journey.” But I think she was all of those things. I think we all are. 

Come, come, whoever you are; wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving…

We’re all wanderers. Arami oved avi, “My father was a wandering Aramean” — so says Torah, and the traditional haggadah begins our fundamental story of liberation there, with the wandering that led to our enslavement in Egypt. My mother was a literal wanderer, from her birth in Prague to a lifetime in the United States. But even those of us who never leave our hometowns are on a journey of growth and becoming and discovery. That’s what spiritual life is. That’s what life is, if we’re paying attention. And oh, today is a day for paying attention. 

We’re all worshipers: in Hebrew, mitpallelim. The Hebrew l’hitpallel, “to pray,” literally means “to discern oneself.” We pray in order to discern who we most deeply are. Each day, or each week, or even if it’s only once a year: we speak the words of our liturgy, words of awe and gratitude, words of supplication and hope, and we see how the words feel in our mouths and how the words feel in our hearts. Maybe we’ve changed since last time we spoke these words. And maybe in some ways we haven’t changed at all. 

And we’re all lovers of leaving. Or, at least, we all leave — like it or not, ready or not, we will all die, someday. We all enter this life, and we will all leave this life. In between… well, what we do in between birth and death is up to us, isn’t it? 

Jewish tradition instructs us to make teshuvah, to repent and return and turn ourselves around and do our inner work, the night before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die… so there’s a custom of making teshuvah every night before bed. Pausing every night before bed to think back on the day, on who we’ve been and what we’ve done. Making amends for the places where we missed the mark. Forgiving those who harmed us, and asking for forgiveness from whose whom we’ve harmed. In this way, if we should die before we wake, we’ve done what we can do. 

I learned that from studying texts of our tradition. And from studying the text of my mother’s living and my mother’s dying, I learned the wisdom of looking back on a life and choosing to see the good in it. She could have focused on life’s disappointments and hurts — I know for a fact that her life included them, as every life does. But she chose to uplift what had been good, and let go of the rest. From Mom’s last days, I learned the wisdom of trusting that we’re forgiven, and the wisdom of actively seeking joy and connection until the end. 

Today, on this Yom Kippur, I invite all of us to practice what I learned from my mother’s dying. 

What would happen if we looked back on the last year and choose to see the good in what we’ve done and who we’ve become? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to trust that we can be forgiven — indeed, that when it comes to God, we always already are forgiven, no matter what? What would happen if we approached this day with a sense of joy in our connections that can’t be broken — with those whom we’ve loved (even if they’ve left this life) — with our own souls — with our Source? 

I think that’s how we get from sorrow at our mortality, and our imperfections, and rehearsal for our death, to the joy that today is meant to hold. It’s not an either/or: it’s a both/and. Today we prepare to die, and we also rejoice that we’ve lived. Today we face our shortcomings, and we also affirm that we can be better. Today we hold on to what’s important, and we let go of all the rest. 

Today when we say the Yizkor prayers, I’ll say the memorial prayer for a parent, which is still new on my tongue. And then I’ll go under my tallit, and I’ll talk to Mom, wherever she is now. I’ll thank her for teaching me, both in how she lived and in how she died. 

May this Yom Kippur journey of wandering, and worshipping, and preparing ourselves for leaving, bring us closer to our Source and closer to who we’re meant to become. 

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving
Come, come, whoever you are
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken your vows
A thousand times before: and yet again,
Come again, come, and yet again…
בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:
נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.
בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:
אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.
מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים
אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,
עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב – בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.
עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב …

This is the sermon that Rabbi Rachel offered on Yom Kippur morning (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

1. These words come from an interpretation of the deathbed vidui by R’ David Markus, published in Beside Still Waters.

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