"Rebbe Eliezer taught,'Repent one day before you die'." His students asked him "But how can we know when we will die?". He responded "Indeed treat every day as it might be your last. That way your whole life will be focused on right living and repentance".
Rebbe Eliezer's teaching, while making much sense to me, is not the way everyone sees things. I remember when I was a teenager the late Frank Sinatra released a song called "It Was a Very Good Year". The lyrics were of a man reminiscing on his life beginning from when he was 17. The entire focus of the man's life, through all the different passages was pursuit of pleasure.
Now I could understand that looking back at his younger years and his youthful indulgences he might claim "it was a very good year". But I remember, even as a teen, I was shocked that when Sinatra, in the song, is already an old man, reflecting on his later years, as his life is ebbing away,there too, rather than repent or refocus, he remains equally committed to the pursuit of pleasure, just of a more refined type. There too, near his end, he proudly claims the pleasures he pursued and pronounces them "a very good year".
Knowing he has but little time left, he feels no impulse to to 'tshuva', repent, and devote his remaining time to worthy endeavours. Living his 'last days' does not impel him to the mandate of Rebbe Eliezer quoted above. Instead he remain committed to his agenda, drawing from life every last pleasure it has to offer.To the end, he affirms and blesses his self-indulgent focus.
And thats not the only time I found myself surprised that life's end did not lead to change. For many years I worked as a hospital chaplain. I visited the frail and dying and spent hours upon hours at their bedside. Rare indeed was the case where a person, knowing his/her end was near used their last days and months to make ammends, repent, express remorse, make the kind of changes that Rebbe Eliezer envisioned for those who know time is short.
I came to realize that there are two kinds of people in the world. If told they had but a month to live, the first kind would go out and live it up, pursue all the pleasures available to them, take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy life before it was gone. Knowing they were dying would not motivate them to repent. On the contrary it would inspire them to intensify their pleasure seeking agenda.The second kind of person would use their last month to make a difference. They would seek to improve themselves though intensive prayer and sudy. Or they might invest their last days trying to improve the life of others through acts of hesed and voluntarism.
It is to this last group and only to the last group, that Rebbe Eliezer's teaching has relevance. Sadly, I suspect, this group represents the minority.
We stand now only a few days before Rosh Hashanna. It is almost always the case that the last Shabbat of the year we read the parsha of Nitzavim. Prominent in Nitzavim is Moshe's challenge to the People of Israel to the mitzvah of Teshuva, Repentance.
The end of the year, the time of judgement, and the mitzvah of Teshuva, for some of us, the contiguity of the mitzvah and season is propitious.Knowing we are coming to an end, knowing we face a judgement, knowing that our future is at stake, moves us to introspection and return. This is the season of return.
Question is, into which group do we fall? Are we of the Frank Sinatra variety, who, while we may not live a life as hedonistic as his, nonetheless share with him the attitude that when faced with our end, we refuse to change and instead insist til the last, that all of our life and behaviors reflect "a very good year".
Are we, like so many I visited, determined to remain true to the way we have always been, unwilling to adapt, change, or alter our values, and practices.
Or are we students of Rebbe Eliezer. Will we seize the moment and remake ourselves. Will we have the courage and the smarts to change for the better and move ourselves along the road to real 'shlaimut', wholeness, a shlaimut that inevitably requires change and acknowledgement of wrong-doing.
Two kinds of people... Which are we? How we respond to knowing an 'end' is at hand makes all the difference in determining whether we are essentially persons of the spirit or of the earth.
We can bless the past and cleave to it saying "it was a very good year" or we can say "the year past may have had many good things about it, but it cannot be my model for the future. I need to change!"
As another one of those immortal crooners sang "Its now or never".
Lets make it now!
Ktiva V'chatima Tova!
May you and all those you love and all Israel be inscribed and sealed for a life of blessing, meaning and growth.