Contemplating Life, Death — and What to Wear

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Elul is the perfect time to go through our closets, both actual and metaphorical, as we prepare for the new year, a local rabbi writes. 

For me, Elul has always served as a month of internal preparation, and I have worked toward marking the 29 days before Rosh Hashanah with soul-searching and contemplation. With reading and writing, I have worked on my mind and spirit. This year I encountered a new challenge.
 
I recently spent time helping my best friend go through her closets because, after 41 years in her house, she is moving. In three separate closets, we found her father’s neckties, her former husband’s tuxedos and many items belonging to her mother: pants, jackets, blouses and more. As gently as I could, I asked her if she was ready to part with the clothing of these three family members, all of whom are dead. 
 
How do clothes — and other belongings — represent life or, conversely, feed our fears of death? Elul may be the perfect time to go through our closets, both actual and metaphorical, because this is the month when we prepare not only for a new year, but for life — and death.
 
Rosh Hashanah is a call to life, with more than 100 shofar blasts, with our declaration that “Today is the Birth Day of the World,” with pageantry, ritual and symbolic foods for long life and wisdom. In synagogues and homes, in the practices of the devout and those who call themselves secular, the message is simple and strong: CHOOSE LIFE. 
 
Yom Kippur is a call to death. Throughout the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, we descend into death as we fast, eschew bathing, wear simple white clothes, go barefoot or wear no leather, and spend the day in the synagogue, turning our backs on the world. We leave both the natural and the material worlds, distancing ourselves from commerce and community, from the cacophony of the marketplace and the comforts of home.
 
We enter into the subdued light of the synagogue, read prepared liturgies and chant the Torah with the particular trope of these Awesome days. The day stretches on and we go more deeply inward, discovering, perhaps, a well of quiet of which we were unaware. We fear the darkness but, descending, find light.
 
In A Bride for One Night, Professor and Israeli member of the  Knesset Ruth Calderon retells talmudic tales. In one, she writes that when the Angel of Death was sent by the Holy One to Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, “The Angel of Death knew from experience that escorting sages to their deaths, whether they were still in their prime or had reached ripe old age, was not a difficult task. Sages were prepared to die; they were not shocked and startled by his arrival like other men.
 
“With sages, the Angel of Death was spared the routine crying and pleading and the paralyzed looks of those not ready to depart from the world. Perhaps the little pride they had countered the fear of death, overcoming that momentary pain when the soul escapes the body. Perhaps they were consoled by the fact that the Torah they had learned in their lifetimes would secure them a place in heaven. In any case, the Angel of Death tended to interact politely with sages, as if conversing with equals.”
 
On Yom Kippur, we all become sages. On Yom Kippur, we are welcomed into the world of death. We wrestle with our pride, in both communal and individual confessions. And together we study Torah. On Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, we glimpse the world to come, the world of eternal life, the time we envision as we conclude every Aleinu — when all will be One.
 
On Yom Kippur, we face death. And then, with one final blast of the shofar, we return to life. And we place the first nails in the sukkah. 
 
What have I been keeping in my closets, both actual and metaphorical, that hinders my being fully alive? What am I keeping behind closed doors, away from all eyes, including mine, that is preventing me from being fully awake to my life, and to honoring and accepting the inevitability of death?
 
This Elul, I’ve been opening the doors to my closets and my heart to see what I’ve been hiding. If I want to truly embrace this new year, to embrace life, what do I need to discard? 
 
What is hanging around that I no longer want or need? What have I grown out of? What constricts my spirit, or wraps me in too many layers of unnecessary fabric? What is no longer useful to me but could be useful to someone else? 
 
In this new year, how will I dress myself for life? How will I dress myself for death? Author Sylvia Boorstein teaches: “It’s an inside job.” I will dress myself from the inside out.
 
May I live with sufficient clarity and intention so that when it is my turn to be called by the Angel of Death, I, like the sage whose name I bear, will be ready. And thanks to years of practice on Yom Kippur, I will know what to wear.
 
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, the editor of The Open Door Haggadah, serves as a spiritual director in Philadelphia. She also co-edited Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives
 

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