This past week I was in Atlanta, Georgia attending the annual Central Conference of American Rabbis, or CCAR convention. Over 500 rabbis gathered in a hotel, and for days we learned together, taught one another, and put some faces to names. As a rabbi, I wear many different hats: spiritual leader, song leader, therapist, executive director, and teacher. And CCAR, in particular, feeds into the most cherished hat I wear– that of the eternal student. I absolutely love sitting as a student to other rabbis, sitting next to rabbis who have been in the field for much longer than me, with all of us sharing in the excitement that we will learn something new from the great masters of our movement.
This year’s CCAR theme was “Being a rabbi in turbulent times” and during the break-out sessions, my hand could not keep up as I was frantically jotting down notes from one particular teacher, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. If you’ve never met Rabbi Yanklowitz, who insists you call him Shmuly, you should know that he’s the rabbi with the biggest smile in the room. He’s also, usually, the smartest. Though he’s about my age, he has a masters degree from Harvard, a Phd from Columbia, and an ordination from Chovevei Torah, a modern Orthodox rabbinical school. He is also currently the executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish education center. Additionally, he has founded multiple organizations including those with emphasis on the environment, and on foster children, and, somehow between all those things, he managed to write 11 books on ethics. In other words, friends, he’s “super rabbi”!
As I mentioned, the central theme of our conference was on ethics and, more specifically, how we as rabbis should help to teach our congregations about how ethics have changed, especially since the election, how ethics work within Jewish thought, and how we as human beings can struggle with the ethical dilemmas we face in our lives. While it would take too long for me to talk about all the various themes Shmuly spoke about, I did want to focus on one of his teaching, which he calls “Our Five Deaths.” Death is certainly a well discussed concept, even in Judaism, but throughout history we have also seen it picked apart by various scholars and theologians, trying to give answers to the unanswerable. Some of us fear death, but Shmuly teaches that this fear can lead to productive action, a path to change the way we think about our lives. Shmuly proposes that we do not die once, but experience death five times, or as he says, “that each person dies at five distinct moments in temporal time.”
1. When we stop loving life.
2. The irreversible cessation of the heartbeat.
3. When our body is lowered into the earth.
4. The last time our influence has any direct impact through posterity.
5. The last time our name is ever mentioned on Earth.
This is powerful stuff. Shmuly goes on to discuss how, when we experience each of these five deaths, we naturally respond in an unhealthy manner. For example:
When we stop loving life – we seek a vacuous shell of empty ecstasy and pleasure.
With the irreversible cessation of our heartbeat – we obsess upon the external health of the body. When our body is lowered into the earth – we seek materials over love. The last time our influence has any direct impact through our posterity – we seek unilateral control over our legacy. And, the last time our name is ever mentioned on Earth – we try to build an ostentatious reputation rather than one of humility.
The question raised in our session, then, was how can we productively respond to these five stages of death, and the fear that we have from all of them? Shmuly’s theory is very God-centric, and corresponds to the Jewish holidays. It is one you that, if interested, you can easily find in his public writings. I, however, have my own insights I want to share tonight.
If Shmuly’s theory of the five deaths is right, and I certainly see the power in thinking that it is, what can we do? What can we do when we realize we have stopped loving life, that we are going through the motions of things that are supposed to bring us joy, but do not. What can we do when we have lost that drive to see the beauty in the world through the clutter around us? When we have focused too much on what we are taught to be happy about, rather than embrace what brings us joy? When we find ourselves in these situations, we change the way we look at people, treat people, and treat ourselves. “With the irreversible cessation of our heartbeat,” Shmuly says “we obsess upon the external health of the body.” In other words, we focus on the outside of ourselves: how we look, how we dress, how we appear to others. Too often we neglect our inner selves, our mental health, our spiritual health. “When our body is lowered into the earth – we seek materials over love:” We believe that if we surround ourselves with expensive items, in a nice house, in a nice car, with nice watches and clothes, that we are loving ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be loved. In truth, we are doing the opposite. The materialistic view clouds us from being vulnerable, from focusing on building true friendships, rather than friendships that are opportunities to “one-up” one another. The last two deaths: when “we seek unilateral control over our legacy” and when “we try to build an ostentatious reputation rather than one of humility,” are similar but speak to the more general goals of seeking attention and recognition, rather than making the decisions that we believe to be right, whether or not they are popular. These deaths lead us into paths of narcissism and ego, of peer pressure, and eventually of rationalizing unethical behavior thanks to the influence of those in power around us, and our desire to be part of a group.
So how do we stop ourselves from dying these five deaths? How do we keep ourselves from falling into the pits of materialism, narcissism, following, and shallowness? We do so by disconnecting ourselves from what psychologists call the “herd mentality,” the influences that we adopt by those around us, which cause us to lose our own identities. When we look in the mirror, who do we see? The person who we want everyone else to like, or the person who we respect? Psychology distinguishes between self-esteem and self-respect. Our self-esteem is the positive view of ourselves, that we can lose, thanks to the words and actions of others around us; high self-esteem makes us smile, while low self-esteem leads us to destructive behaviors, such as the five deaths we spoke about tonight. Self-respect, on the other hand, is completely separate, as it is what we accept about ourselves, including our limitations. Self-respect fights off the herd mentality; it quiets the voices of dissent, of cruelty; it teaches us to learn who we are without the expensive items around us, or the make-up, or the new haircut. It teaches us that we do not need external pleasures, we do not need materialistic items, we do not need fame or positive attention to shape who we are. Self-respect stops us from doubting ourselves when we stand for something, when we make an unpopular but necessary decision, when we have the spiritual courage to stand up for an issue or for a person.
Shmuly’s theory on the Five Deaths offers us deep and heavy lesson but I believe that we can avoid these deaths, all five of them, by letting go of the influences around us, and by learning self-respect. When God created the earth, we are taught that God constricted, and left a space so that God could pour creative light into vessels. The vessels were not strong enough to hold the power of God’s light and shattered, and the sparks of God’s light were carried down into each of us. Let us strive to be vessels of which God’s light and our own light cannot be contained. Let us attempt to see the light crack through the walls of the vessels made of self-doubt, and shine through to others, showing humanity what we have the capability of being: a soul on the earth equal to all others, a spark of the divine.