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  • Andres Spokoiny

'Memento Mori': The Unpleasant Reminder That Makes Us Better People (Yom Kippur 5781)

Rome’s highest honor for its military leaders was the triumph. It was an extravagant and lavish affair in which the triumphator, wearing a crown of laurel and a gold-embroidered purple tunic, and riding a gold-plated four-horse carriage, was paraded through the streets of the city at the head of his army, showing off the captives and the spoils that they brought from the campaign.

But one element of the triumph felt dissonant. As the general stood on his carriage receiving the admiration of the senators, the shower of rose petals from the vestals and the cheers of the crowd, behind him stood a slave stood whose task was to whisper in the hero’s ear, “Memento mori,” “Remember that you will die.” Death served, then and always, as a spur toward humility, a reminder of our finitude just when we might start thinking, “I am a god.”

We don’t like to talk about it, but one of the main themes of the High Holidays is death. Why do we traditionally dress in white? Purity, your rabbi may tell you. Yes, that too, but mainly we do it to remind us of the white shrouds that will wrap our bodies in the grave. And why do we avoid food, drink, and other bodily pleasures on Yom Kippur? Because we want to imagine a time in which we will no longer have a body. In these fateful days we are commanded to confront our mortality, to “live our own deaths,” as it were.

There is something incredibly deep and wise in this tradition. We have all heard stories of people undergoing near-death experiences that completely change their outlook on life. They learn the transience of material things and begin to focus, at least for a while, on what is most important. Life, and everything in it that we usually take for granted, becomes precious and rare. The High Holidays offer us a simulated near-death experience, sparing us the inconvenience of, for example, a plane crash.

This year, more than ever, the message is incredibly poignant. Before Covid, one of the most popular books was Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus,” for it captured how many of us felt: like gods, with almost unlimited power to rule and control nature. We were like Roman generals in a triumph, proudly lording over the world.

And there comes a virus, a minute thing that doesn’t even have a cellular nucleus yet manages to stop the entire world in its tracks. Suddenly, the specter of the plague comes back to haunt us from the gutters of history, and suddenly, the entire human race has a close brush with death. At the peak of our power, Covid serves as a “memento mori” for all of humanity.

We don’t need to look to ancient Rome to find death as a teacher of humility; the same theme lies in our machzorim (High Holiday prayer books). In the High Holiday liturgy we chant, in haunting modal strains: “What are we? What are our lives,” “The preeminence of man over the animal is nothing, for all is vanity,” and, even more poignantly, “Man’s beginning is from dust, and his end is into dust… He is like a broken clay pot… like a withered flower… like a wind that flies away… like a fleeting dream.”

Didn’t it feel a little like that in the height of Covid? Didn’t we see, with painful clarity, the fragility of our bodies, our economies, and our societies? Didn’t we feel that all we built, all we are, could vanish? It was – still is – a terribly unsettling experience. But our tradition, with or without Covid, wants us to fully embrace that feeling, to hear “memento mori” as if it were a nagging voice that can’t be silenced.

To be sure, our great achievements come from forgetting that we are going to die. Thinking about our own deaths can be paralyzing, so our brains generally tell us “oblivio mori.” Armed with the fiction that we’ll live forever, we go out and learn, build stuff we won’t get to enjoy, invest in the future. Without “oblivio mori,” many of us wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning or, conversely, we would try only to enjoy the moment in self-destructive ways. But on the other hand, many of our human problems come from this forgetting. If you embraced the fact that your days were numbered, would you waste them with hate? Would you spend the precious time you have gossiping? If you knew that time was running out, wouldn’t you try to be noble and do something meaningful with the few years allotted to you?

Because ultimately, death is what makes life, and every second within it, precious.

During Covid, most of us got to eat humble pie by the ton. We realized our fragility and vulnerability. For some of us, it was paralyzing, but for others, it was a call to action, a plea to re-center our lives around what really matters. Some of us started calling our parents every day, others helped their neighbors, others tried to find a way of doing transcendent and important work.

There was a brief time, right at the beginning of the plague, in which our petty squabbles looked ridiculous; confronting the enormity of death, most of our debates looked wasteful and, in the best of cases, merely quaint; a luxury that people can indulge when they have all the time they want at their disposal. One could imagine a time in which the immediacy of death even softens rivalries between countries.. Why fight over a few square miles of land when we may all die, and why would I waste my precious time worrying about how you chose to worship your god and hating you for it? One could imagine that, with the disease poised to strike at any moment, people would use the time to be with those they love instead of squandering time and energy in hating others.

While I pray every day for Covid to disappear, there’s an aspect of those early Covid days that I don’t want to lose: that vulnerability that is strangely liberating, that capacity to focus on the people and the values that really matter. It lasted just a little time, and many of us went right back to our old patterns of selfishness, to the same old conflicts and clashes, but it was there, if fleetingly.

That’s why Yom Kippur’s simulation of death is, this year, more prescient than ever. As we grow tired of lockdowns and restrictions, this “memento mori” can make us hold on to some of the things we learned during the plague: that at the end of the day, life is an amazing gift, a canvas to be painted with love.

In Yom Kippur we mimic death, but we also enact a rebirth. The blast of the shofar that marks the end of the fast is like the cry of a newborn, like the signal of a new beginning. Acknowledging death makes us come back to life as different and better people: more humble, more courageous more sensitive to others, more focused on what truly matters. We walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” and we emerge on the other side more human, more appreciative of the millions of little miracles that we enjoy every day.

That is the hidden beauty of Yom Kippur, and may it, too, be one good thing that we get out of Covid.


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