Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Kol Nidrei 5776 • 22 September 2015
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Picture the year 2158. Medical science has found the fountain of youth. Anti-Gerasone, an elixir created 102 years earlier, in 2056, stops the human aging process. Made from mud and dandelions, it is cheap and widely available. There’s no more bodily decline, no more debilitation, no more death by natural causes.
Sounds pretty good, right? To live in such a paradise — it’s what we all long for.
Or is it? What I’ve just described is the premise of a 1954 Kurt Vonnegut short story called “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.” If you know Vonnegut, you can guess that his version of 2158 is a dystopian future. The fountain of youth has some severe side effects.
In 2158, we zoom in on the Schwartz family, four generations living in a cramped three-room apartment in outer New York City — what used to be Connecticut. With natural death overthrown, the world is overpopulated. Food and space are scarce. People eat seaweed for every meal and squeeze into small homes.
The Schwartz family spends all their time trying not to upset Gramps, the patriarch of the family. If you get on his good side, you get preferred bed placement; if you cross him, you get demoted to sleeping in the hallway next to the bathroom. Gramps spends his time rewriting his will to disinherit whichever relative is bothering him today, and to appoint a new favorite as the heir to his private bedroom.
It’s a grim picture of something we think we want — immortality. It’s also a warning. Even something as precious as life — which Jewish tradition commands us to “choose” in no uncertain terms — even the pursuit of life can become a kind of idol-worship. Vonnegut’s cautionary tale prods us to ask, not simply, “How long can we live?” — but also, “What are we living for?”
Vonnegut’s imaginary anti-aging medicine may have felt futuristic in 1954. But with regard to longevity, today we are heading toward an unprecedented reality. More people than ever will live to 100. At first glance, what a blessing! Think of how many more of us will live to see grandchildren married, great-grandchildren born, businesses and causes we supported thriving beyond our wildest dreams.
And yet, what of the darker side of longevity? How many more of us will suffer from cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia? How many of us will endure incurable chronic decline?
When I was 13, my grandmother Lillie Segal (for whom our son Levi is named) collapsed suddenly while playing bridge with her friends. She was 82 at the time, sound of mind and body. It turned out she’d had a massive stroke that rendered her braindead. She was kept on life support until the family said their goodbyes and then let her go. What stuck in my 13-year-old brain was how the adults around me reacted. They said things like, “She was lucky” and, “That’s how I want to go — great health into old age and then, one day — [SNAP].” I didn’t understand it at the time. As a teenager, I thought, “A sudden death means not getting to say goodbye. Wouldn’t it be better to die slowly, with notice, surrounded by family?”
Now I’ve seen others die a prolonged death — my own loved ones and patients for whom I’ve served as chaplain. It’s not better. To watch people suffer, to watch their loved ones watch them suffer — I understand why they said Grandma Lillie was lucky. More than we fear death, we fear suffering. We fear loss of control, function, independence.
There’s an old folk tale about the Jewish jester of Baghdad. He was a favorite of the Sultan, until one day he told a joke that offended his ruler. The Sultan summoned him to his court. “Dear jester,” he said, “for offending the crown, I sentence you to death. But because of all the years of joy and laughter you gave me, I will let you choose the manner of your death.”
“If it’s all the same to you,” said the jester, “I choose death by old age.”
Unlike the jester, we don’t get to choose. Sadly, some of us will have to cope with debility and loss of independence. Some of us already face these challenges as caretakers of aging spouses, parents, loved ones.
Leaving the jester’s tale aside, let’s focus on what we can control. We can own our attitude and our communication with our loved ones around death and end of life. It starts with a conversation. Atul Gawande, surgeon and author of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, suggests starting here:
Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding? (Gawande, 259)
(I’ve also compiled a list of questions for guiding these conversations which you can find as you exit tonight, as well as on our website after Yom Kippur.) Too often, we wait to have these conversations until we’re already in crisis mode. Emotions run hot, so it’s hard to think clearly. Sometimes the person whose life hangs in the balance is not fully present to discuss their health care priorities. Families are left to do their best to respect what they guess their loved one’s wishes are.
In other cases, we face choices around a terminal illness when the treatment stops working. Gawande describes a “breakpoint discussion,” which involves
a series of conversations to sort out when they need to switch from fighting for time to fighting for the other things that people value — being with family or enjoying chocolate ice cream… At root the debate is about what mistakes we fear most — the mistake of prolonging suffering or the mistake of shortening valued life. (Gawande, 185, 244)
It is hard to know when to keep fighting, and when to let go. These are difficult conversations, and they take time and raw honesty. There’s no prescription I can give from the pulpit to resolve every dilemma. I can encourage being open and proactive in discussing end of life questions with your family. Of course, advanced directives and power of attorney paperwork are vital. But as important is the talk you have with your loved ones about what is in those legal documents, and the values behind them. Speaking as a doctor, Gawande reminds us:
We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. (Gawande, 259)
That is our job. As a sacred community, that’s why we’re here tonight — to better understand why we’re here. To explore larger questions of purpose, to find the “why” of our life. This night of judgment asks: What are you living for?
* * *
I was listening to the radio in my car the other day, and for reasons I can’t quite explain I turned to the local Christian rock station. I guess I was checking out the competition, or something. In between songs, an ad came on for a documentary film about a pastor who was in a terrible car accident and pronounced dead at the scene. For the next hour and a half, the narrator said, his soul experienced life like he never knew before. The film was called 90 Minutes in Heaven, guaranteed to reassure you about what awaits after you shuffle off this mortal coil.
People ask me all the time, “Rabbi, what do Jews believe happens after we die?” There are a lot of answers. Ancient answers, medieval answers, modern answers, with sources and prooftexts. I just taught a class on this topic last spring. We talked about the immortality of the soul, purgatory, communion with God, and the resurrection of the dead under the Messiah’s rule.
But if you’ll permit your rabbi a moment of public skepticism and vulnerability: I don’t know what happens after we die. Maybe that’s obvious, but I wanted to say it out loud. Furthermore, no one knows what happens after we die — not with certainty, anyway. I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask the question, or study how various cultures have answered it — on the contrary, go and study. I’m just saying, we won’t know for sure until we get there.
That said, I do know with certainty a few things that happen after we die. Our loved ones sign paperwork. They make decisions about remains. They sort out inheritance. They go through our stuff. They also begin the process of remembering us.
“The living know they shall die,” says Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The living know then, too, that one day we will live in the memory of those we met along the way. One of the responsibilities of living is preparing for dying — preparing to live in memory. I don’t mean a morbid retreat into despair or nihilism. I mean seeing your life from a God’s-eye view, as a bridge between past and future, a finite span inside eternity.
There’s a story I read with my b’nai mitzvah students when we start studying together. Once there was a young wave who lived in the ocean. All day long he danced and sprayed, happily rushing along in the currents. Then one day he was startled. He saw that the waves in front of him were crashing on an unknown beach and dissolving away. He got scared and started to cry. An older wave rolled over to him and said, “Young wave, until now you have known only your own crests and troughs. You thought you were alone. Now you have learned you were never alone. You were always part of a huge ocean, a greater force. You have been shaped by waves who crashed long before you, and the ripples from your break will be felt by other waves long after you reach the shore.”
* * *
At the end of the Vonnegut story, Gramps the patriarch gets the last laugh. He fakes his death and leaves a note telling his descendants that all of his belongings will be divided up evenly among them. Of course, there’s only one master bedroom… As the family members stake their claims, the tension escalates and a riot ensues. The police arrest them all and throw them in prison. They are ecstatic: in prison, they each have their own bed and washbasin, and the rarest commodity of all, privacy! They hope out loud that their lawyers can get them a long prison sentence, maybe even solitary confinement.
As for Gramps, he returns to a blissfully empty apartment. When he sits down to watch TV, an ad for Super-Anti-Gerasone comes on: “In weeks — yes, weeks — you can look, feel and act as young as your great-great-grandchildren!” Gramps smiles for the first time in years, at the thought of not just stopping but reversing his aging. “Life,” the narrator tells us, “was good.” Amusing as it is, this ending is also dark and hollow. Gramps is a hoarder — of square footage and of years. The single-minded obsession with cheating death — this idolatry of time — has turned people into selfish husks, lacking purpose or depth. Loved ones see each other as hurdles to happiness, obstacles that take up space rather than sources of love, support, meaning, and memory.
The short story’s namesake is even bleaker. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in a soliloquy the title character utters upon learning of Lady Macbeth’s death. Soon after this speech, Macbeth meets his own demise.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,To the last syllable of recorded time;And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more. It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5:5, 17-28)
These are devastating words. But our faith teaches us that life is more than just strutting and fretting around until our time is up. We are here to do something of consequence — too add value, to advance the world, to be a blessing. We come from a people who looked up at the heavens and asked, “Why are we here?” Heirs to that tradition, we are still looking, still asking, still telling stories and singing prayers that reach toward an answer.
The sages taught in a midrash:
When a person comes into the world, his fists are clenched, as though to say, “The whole world is mine, and I shall inherit it.” But when he departs from the world, his hands are spread open, as though to say, “I have inherited nothing from this world.” (Kohelet Rabbah 5:14; Book of Legends 583:75)
In line with so much of the liturgy of the holidays, this midrash — like Macbeth’s speech — reminds us that we are but dust and ashes, our days on earth a passing shadow. As they say, you can’t take it with you.
But there is another way to read the midrash, a more life-affirming way:
When a person comes into the world, his fists are clenched, as though to say, “I’ve received the baton from those who came before me, and I’m ready for my leg of the relay.” When he departs from the world, his hands are spread open, as though to say, “I’ve run my race, and now I make my handoff to the future.”
My friends, fellow relay-runners, we are all interims. Our forebears invested in us; posterity depends on us. We’re given an allotment of years, God only knows how long, and we’re expected to run with it. When we reach the end of our track, let it be not just a letting go but a handing off.
The best way to live is to be part of something bigger than yourself.
It is also the best way to die.