Taking advantage of what is, interestingly enough after all, only an arbitrary way of calculating a turning point in the counting of our days (why not solstice?), this is the time of year when our society focuses upon the idea of making new year’s resolutions.
Jews practice a variation of this idea on Yom Kippur, when we are meant to consider the ways in which we have missed the mark for which each of us aims as we attempt to live as our best selves in the world. But you may be interested to learn, or be reminded, that our people also instituted a monthly mini-Yom Kippur as part of our regular weekday morning prayers. It seems that our people recognize that once a year review and effort toward change is not likely to be effective. This raises the question of what sort of approach might be most effective.
שוב יום לפני מתתך – “Repent one day before your death.” Pirke Avot 2.15
The Talmudic Rabbi Eliezer offers this answer in Pirke Avot (the title of a Talmudic compendium that might be best translated “ethical soundbites of our ancestors”). It is recorded in later levels of Talmudic discussion that other Rabbis take up this teaching thus:
Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance. (BT Shabbat 153a)
Repentance and death are fascinating traveling companions. Thus, in parashat VaYekhi, our parashat hashavua, [Torah reading of the week], there is an interesting coincidence that brings several theological strands of Jewish culture together as the Patriarch Jacob, Yaakov ben Yitzkhak, dies at a very old age. Surrounded by his children, he speaks a final word to each. It is the kind of word that is not spoken every day, but it is a communication that each needed to hear. In this act of deathbed repentance, with each message to each child, Jacob turns away from the distractions of life and back, at the end, toward the essential parent-child bond.
This kind of repentance comes from the use the Hebrew word here, shuv. This verb is the imperative form of the word we know from Yom Kippur – teshuvah. In the Torah it is used to mean to turn around and go back, i.e. return. Jewish ethics understands here a return to one’s best self after straying from that path. For a people wandering a wilderness, staying on the path to the next oasis really was life and death, and so, perhaps, influenced our sense not only of our path – halakhah, but also the fact that sometimes one loses one’s way, and that it is vitally important to return to the right path – since one’s life depends upon it.
We might respond that it’s not really likely that we will die when we stray – but no one knows how long we each have to live. To “repent one day before your death” is to spend that day in the conscious realization that it might be your last. What would you like your last act to be? your last word?
The immediacy of it is striking when we consider the ways in which live our relationships obliquely, saying “later” and “when I have time.” Rabbi Eliezer reminds us that we may not have time later. When you are hiking, this is manifestly the best way to stay out of trouble: each day, check your path and make sure you return from whatever accidental straying you may have done. When you are making your way through a daily morass of fears and challenges, the ethical imperative to take one day at a time may be just what we need in order to stave off the feeling of being overwhelmed.
None of us knows how long we have. On this Shabbat, I encourage you to ignore the invitation to make a new year’s resolution in favor of making and re-making, every day, this new day’s resolution: repent – return, reset, reconnect with your best self, your loved ones, your community, your world – one day before your death.