Knowing When You’ll Die

mt-neboFirstly, I’d like to apologize for not posting to the VEB blog for a couple months. The holidays kind of ran away from me and I have been particularly busy at work. Thank you for remaining a reader and subscriber, to those of you who are still with me. This post is a sermon I delivered at my synagogue back in October. Some of the references in this sermon are from the Hebrew Torah, (or the “Old Testament” as many of you may know it) and are easily found using Google if you need a refresher or are unfamiliar. For the most part, it’s not particularly religious, it’s more philosophical, and I talk a bit about EMS in it as well, so I hope you enjoy it. A number of people have requested that I share this online for re-reading or being able to share it elsewhere. If you do share it, please remember to credit back to me at this blog or by email. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, I always welcome them at or by leaving a comment below the post here. Thanks again for reading – and Happy New Year!


Sermon delivered by Dave Yergin
Temple Beth-El, San Antonio – October 14, 2016

There is a moment, a brief second, when the Shabbat candles are lit, but the flame has not caught completely, and I feel like I almost have to hold my breath, so as to allow the flame to catch, the candle to be lit, and Shabbat to begin. For me, that moment is the dividing line between the week – running around, busy at work, thinking about what’s next, and Shabbat – when we take a breath, relax, reflect on the past week. What did I do that I’m proud of? What could I have done better? Did I hurt anyone? More importantly, did I help anyone? This moment, barely a single heartbeat, in between the busy week, and the respite of Shabbat, is a moment of reflection, of introspection, of self-awareness. It’s an opportunity for Teshuva, or, literally, “to return.” This is something we heard a lot in the past couple weeks, as we were preparing for, and then experiencing, the High Holy Days. To me, teshuva is not just the act of asking for forgiveness, it means actually taking stock of one’s self. Being aware of how I interact with those around me, how my behavior affects those around me, and thinking about ways to improve myself. It’s not a matter of just making amends; it’s learning how to become a better person, so that, hopefully, it will become less and less necessary to make amends in the future. For Jews, Yom Kippur is our main, annual opportunity to return, to repent, to apologize, and, ideally, to forgive. We don’t have to wait a whole year, though. Teshuvah can be a constant process of self-awareness and self-improvement.

Every moment of every day, every interaction with another human being, every word we speak, is an opportunity to be a better person. There have been many times when I personally spoke harshly or angrily with somebody and immediately regretted it. Sometimes the regret came days or weeks later, when I realized I was wrong, and that I caused another person hurt. Sometimes I have the opportunity to make things better, to talk to them, email them, call them, let them know, “I screwed up. I’m sorry. I’ll try to be better next time.” Sometimes, I do not have the opportunity to make amends. Sometimes it’s a one-time encounter with a patient at work, or a stranger on the street, and I was not as nice or as helpful as I could or should have been. I am left hanging – aware of my wrong-doing, but unable to correct it. In many ways, these one-time encounters are a smaller, less emotionally impactful way of thinking about the finite nature of our lives. We all know we are going to die some day. It’s the nature of humanity that we do not live forever. Because we know that our lives are finite, rather than infinite, this provides an incredibly powerful reason to do everything in our power to never need to make teshuva – to never be in anyone’s emotional debt, so to speak, mainly because, you would not want to die suddenly, and leave behind somebody who you hurt and never had the chance to apologize to, or make things right with.

This week in the Torah, Moses delivers his last speech to the children of Israel, and then God tells Moses to write down a song to teach to the Israelites. The song is a foretelling of the indiscretions of the children of Israel, predicting that they will turn to other gods, and break the covenant. The song is to remind them of their covenant at that time and to remind them to return to God. Moses does as he is told, and records the song, which is actually quite beautiful, and is written in the Torah in a very unique two-column format. After Moses writes the song down, and teaches it to the children of Israel, God then tells Moses to go up on Mount Nebo, look out at the land of Canaan, which was promised to the sons of Israel. Moses is reminded of his trespass against God in the desert, and that Moses will never be allowed to enter Canaan. In fact, God tells Moses that he is going up on Mount Nebo to die.

Think about that for a moment. What would you do today, what would you do right now, if you knew that you were going to climb a mountain tomorrow, and die on it? There’s an old saying from Rabbi Harold Kushner that that “nobody on their deathbed has ever said ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’.” We’re so busy running around, we often don’t pay attention to what is truly important. Well, I am constantly busy running around, at least. On my google calendar, I have my personal calendar, my paramedic shifts, my fire department shifts, my wife’s work schedule, the Cincinnati Reds schedule, the Pittsburgh Steelers schedule, US holidays, Jewish holidays, and a calendar that tracks any events I have been invited to on facebook. When I stop to think about all the things I do and the places I go and the people I see, I sometimes ask myself – how many of those things would be worth the amount of time they took up if today was my last day? If knew I was going to die tomorrow, would I really care about the Reds missing the playoffs? Would I be worried about if my shift trades went through at work? No. I would want to spend time with my wife, my family, and my friends. I would come to Temple and pray, and be surrounded by faith and light and goodness. I would make every effort to talk to every person I could have ever possibly hurt, so that I would at least have some assurance that I didn’t leave any loose ends behind. Knowing exactly how much time I had left on this earth would provide a sense of urgency for me, but also a sense of calm, as none of the small stuff would matter anymore, it would be a time to focus only on the “big picture” – the things that matter most to me; love, friendship, community, helping others.

Rabbi Eliezer says in the Talmud (Shabbat 153a) that one should “Repent one day before your death.” But how do we know when that day is? With very few extremely rare exceptions, most of us do not know when we are going to die. Moses was in the very unique position of knowing when, and even where, he would die. He was able to make preparations. He left instructions with the children of Israel on where their journey would take them, how to correct their inevitable wrongs, how to make teshuva and return to God. Moses was able to look across to Canaan, and know that he was instrumental in getting the children of Israel to their promised land, even if he himself could never go there. For the rest of us, since we don’t know exactly what day we will die, we should try to live every single day as if it was our last chance to interact with the people around us. Yom Kippur is a yearly reminder of how preciously brief our time in this world can be, but we don’t have to think about that just once a year. Think of every day as a chance to make yourself into a better person. Take a moment before speaking to somebody to think, if this is the last thing I ever get to say to this person, is this really how I want them to remember me? We repent and ask God for forgiveness during the high holy days, but we don’t have to wait a whole year to be nicer to our family, our friends, our neighbors. We can start today to focus on things that matter, and not worry so much about the things that don’t. As we begin the new year 5777, I hope that this Shabbat will afford you a moment of reflection, a chance to look inward, a chance to hug those closest to you, and share a special moment, a smile, anything to let them know you care, and they matter. I hope that 5777 is a year of introspection, healing, teshuva, love, and peace for all of us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Delivered at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, TX – October 14, 2016.

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