Living With Dying: A Reflection on 2020

Shalom Chaverim,

In this past Sunday’s The New York Times, Dr. BJ Miller wrote about death: “This year has awakened us to the fact that we die. We’ve always known it to be true in a technical sense, but a pandemic demands that we internalize this understanding.”

This might not seem like the most uplifting topic, but as I reflect on 2020, it seems like an appropriate way to honor who and what we’ve lost and the magnitude of what we have faced.

After exploring the meaning and significance of death and dying, Dr. Miller shifts to what we can learn about life:

“Beyond fear and isolation, maybe this is what the pandemic holds for us: the understanding that living in the face of death can set off a cascade of realization and appreciation. Death is the force that shows you what you love and urges you to revel in that love while the clock ticks. Reveling in love is one sure way to see through and beyond yourself to the wider world, where immortality lives."

Judaism and Jewish life speak to our most essential human questions. Learning to live with death and loss means learning to grieve, which as Jews we do in community. This is why we came together this past summer on Tammuz 17 for a virtual ceremony and memorial dedication.

Many spiritual traditions offer wisdom and tools for “reveling in love” and for living gracefully with uncertainty, loss, and even death.

The Irish poet and Christian theologian John O’Donohue wrote in Walking In Wonder:

“I feel that when you recognize that death is on its way, it is a great liberation, because it means that you can in some way feel the call to live everything that is within you. One of the greatest sins is the unlived life, not to allow yourself to become the chief executive of the project you call your life, to have a reverence always for the immensity that is inside of you.”

We also remember together to humanize and dignify every life lost, and to stay rooted in the past even as we move forward into the future. This is why one of our community members, Alex Goldstein, has created a Twitter account, @FacesofCovid, that tells the stories behind the statistics of those we’ve lost to the coronavirus.

O’Donohue’s powerful phrase, “the unlived life,” reminds me of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s teachings about the liturgy of the Jewish new year (appropriate as we approach the secular one). In The Jewish Way, he writes about why Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are filled with themes of life and death:

“The shock of death reminds us that time is short — too short to waste, too short to let pride and despair trap one in a life pattern with little in it to savor or respect. The very awareness of mortality suddenly puts life into bold relief. No aspect of life can be taken for granted; no feature of one’s personal way is either eternal or absolutely necessary. Thus, one can review, fine-tune, or alter with a new consciousness of alternatives.”

This past year has been a stark reminder that “no aspect of life can be taken for granted.” The most common answer I receive when I speak to people in our community about how they are doing is, “I am blessed.” We are brokenhearted about the lives lost and the number of people who are suffering — at the hands of COVID-19, economic crisis, social isolation, racial injustice — here in Greater Boston and around the world. And, we are as aware as ever of the gifts — health, shelter, employment, family, freedom — that we too often overlook.

There is something about ending a year that can evoke a sweet nostalgia or a sad sense of loss. I always feel a certain melancholy on New Year’s Eve. At the same time, facing the reality that time passes and that all things eventually come to an end can also remind us — even inspire us — to make the most of the time we have.

This might mean slowing down to savor the present moment, to be a bit more “happy with our lot” (Pirkei Avot — Ethics of the Fathers 4:1), to love the ones we’re with. It might also mean looking in the mirror at the person we are today, having the courage to imagine the person we aspire to become, and then committing ourselves to take the journey from one to the other.

I certainly appreciate that being here and being healthy — and being on the journey of creating our future together with all of you — are blessings for which I am deeply grateful.

Wishing you a happy, healthy, better 2021,

Rabbi Marc Baker

Marc Baker

About the Author

CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.