Yom Kippur – You Only Live Twice
By Rabbi Roni Tabick
“You only live twice. Once when you are born and once when you look death in the face.” Ian Fleming
The classic Bond film ‘You Only Live Twice’ opens with our hero ostensibly getting shot to pieces in a fold-up bed. We watch James Bond’s funeral, when his body is dropped in a casket into the ocean in a naval ceremony, sinking to the bottom of the sea. Of course, this is all just a ruse to make the world think that the secret agent is dead, and his ‘casket’ is picked up by scuba divers and brought aboard a submarine, where it turns out Bond was alive all along.
I am reminded of this movie every year as we read the story of Jonah, whose descent into the depths of the ocean and the belly of the whale is a symbolic death and burial at sea. Just as we know that James Bond must be alive (it is, after all, only the beginning of the movie) we know that Jonah will survive this encounter. The reluctant prophet has a mission to fulfil, a duty to God, to go to Nineveh and make the city repent. This moment of plunging into the deep is just a stage in the journey, the darkest moment before Jonah can begin to ascend back to the light.
For the Zohar, the great mystical work written in 13th century Spain, this connection between Jonah’s descent and death is made even more explicit, because the story of Jonah is taken to be a metaphor for each human soul:
“Jonah, who went down into the ship, is the human soul that descends into this world to dwell in the human body… Then the person goes about this world like a ship in the great ocean about to break up, as it is written: “and the ship seemed about to break up” (Jonah 1:4)…
“What is written? “Jonah was in the bowels of the fish” (Jonah 2:1). The bowels of the fish is the belly of Sheol (hell). We know that from the verse “out of the belly of Sheol I cried” (Ibid. 3) for Jonah was in the bowels of the fish and called it the belly of Sheol. “three days and three nights” (Ibid. 1) resembles the three days that man is in the grave before his bowels split open… “And a voice will rise in the graveyard and say, “Awake and sing, you that dwell in dust, for your dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall cast out the shades of the dead” (Isaiah 26:19). When will that be? when the Angel of Death departs from the world, as said in the verse “God will swallow up Death for ever” (Isaiah 25:8)… Then it is written: “And God spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah on the dry land” (Jonah 2:11)” (Zohar II 199a-b).
Our life in this world is compared to the ship on the great ocean, under pressure from storms and waves, always threatening to break up; the moment of our death is when Jonah is cast into the water. In a graphic and disturbing image, Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish is called sheol, a Jewish version of hell, and is compared to the time that the body is in the ground beginning to decompose.
But this is far from the end, for in the future, says the Zohar, God will resurrect the dead, breathing life into the graveyard, and vomiting our souls out of hell and back into the realm of the living. Having overcome death, Jonah is ready to fulfil his task and face the city of Nineveh, and in the future, our souls too will be purified and ready to serve.
How can we follow this example? I suspect most of us have issues with the literal truth of the resurrection of the dead, and even if we believe that it will happen, how does it help us today, on this Yom Kippur? Like everything in the Zohar, this idea should be understood as a mixed metaphor, telling us about the story of Jonah, about our lives in the macro, but also about our potential every day, especially on Yom Kippur, to triumph over death.
Just reading this passage our own mortality stares back at us, as we are forced to come to terms with the limits of the physical, that our bodies will one day cease to function. Once we have faced that reality, we are able to come to terms with it, and live our lives knowing what our end will be. Only then can we truly master death. Yom Kippur is all about facing death, and emerging triumphant.
It is in the imagery of the two goats, each destined to different kinds of deaths; in the described rituals of sprinkling blood; in the harsh liturgy of uNetaneh Tokef, listing out all the ways people can die; in the wearing of white funeral shrouds; in the practice of fasting and abstaining from physical pleasures. Yom Kippur asks us to imagine that we’re dead, and then rise to new life.
Stephen Covey, in his 1989 classic, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, addressed the power of this attitude in his second habit, ‘Begin with the End in Mind’. Through getting you to visualise your own funeral, Covey asks you to think about what really matters:
“Each part of your life — today’s behaviour, tomorrow’s behaviour, next week’s behaviour, next month’s behaviour — can be examined in the context of the whole, of what really matters most to you. By keeping that end clearly in mind, you can make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have of your life as a whole.”
This is the change that Yom Kippur enables us to make. By facing our own death, we are given a new lease on life, enabling us to focus, not on the urgent things that constantly demand our attention, but on the important things that actually matter, those things we would want said about us after we are gone.
Each of you will have different thoughts about what those things are, and Yom Kippur is a chance to explore those answers for yourself, but there are probably a few things we share – developing relationships with friends and family, spending time with loved ones, being creative, having a meaningful career, helping others less fortunate, building community, learning new skills and new ideas… the list goes on and on.
Make your list today, decide what is really important, and with your end in mind, you can begin to live better.
You only live once – until you face death. On Yom Kippur we face death in life, and rise up from the depths of the ocean to live again.
Rabbi Roni Tabick is the rabbi of New Stoke Newington Shul and the assistant rabbi of New North London Synagogue. He was ordained this summer at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and has just moved back to the UK with his wife, Shoshana, and his two daughters to begin working in the Masorti community of the UK.