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Torah with Morrie 11: Learn How to Die; Learn How to Live

Torah with Morrie 11: Learn How to Die; Learn How to Live

Are you ready to die today?


"'Everybody knows they're going to die, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently,' Morrie said. 'So we kid ourselves about death,' I (Mitch) said. 'Yes, but there's a better approach. To know you're going to die and be prepared for it at any time. That's better. That way you can be actually be more involved in your life while you're living. . . Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, 'Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?... The truth is, Mitch, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live… Most of us walk around as if we're sleepwalking. We really don't experience the world fully because we're half asleep, doing things we automatically think we have to do... Learn how to die, and you learn how to live.'" -- Tuesdays with Morrie

Have you ever experienced something so memorable that it is impossible to forget it? Most of us forget a large percentage of the people we meet, the places we go, the events we experience. But certain things stick out in our minds and are never forgotten. Why? What's special about those memorable times?

In the Hebrew language, the word for remember is zachor. There is a principle in Hebrew that phonetic sounds and letters are inter-related regarding their meaning. Consequently, although the word sagar means 'to close,' sagar and zachor are connected in the depth of their connotations (the 's' and 'z' are phonetically close, as are the 'g' and 'ch'). When we remember an event, it is because we originally closed off that occurrence in our minds and locked it in as supremely meaningful.

When we are experiencing our wedding day or our graduation, we connect so powerfully to the celebration that it is as if our psyche is taking a continuous photo session. We store these numerous memories in the 'picture album' of our mind, locking them in and never forgetting them.

There don't seem to be too many days or happenings that we lock in like this. How can we produce more experiences and days to be lived as powerfully? Morrie tells us: Learn how to die, and you learn how to live.

If we truly lived with that little bird on our shoulder asking us if we are ready to die today, we would bond so strongly with every event in our lives. We would appreciate every sunset, every walk around the block, every phone call from our parents, every conversation with our friends, every culinary delight, and so on. Each instant of life would be laced with urgency and passion. We would remind ourselves of the significance that every human experience can yield. We would pinch ourselves regularly as a reminder to appreciate the moment. We would make all days and events meaningful and memorable -- even the so called monotonous ones.

By living each day as if it could be our last, we relate to each life experience passionately, powerfully, and memorably.

This is what is meant by a Talmudic statement that has perplexed many throughout the ages: "Whoever wants to live, must make himself dead" (Tamid 32a).

What does this mean? Judaism teaches that we must embrace life, seize the world and conquer it. How can it be advantageous to make ourselves like we are dead?

The explanation is: Learn how to die, and you learn how to live. By living each day as if it could be our last, we relate to each life experience passionately, powerfully, and memorably.

On the last Shabbat of every Jewish month, we recite a beautiful prayer expressing our hopes and dreams for the coming month. In this prayer, we say, 'God, please grant us a long life.' The question should be obvious: How is it possible to live a long life in one month's time? A month lasts for 30 days. It would make sense for us to request to live out the month, the complete 30 days, but what do we mean when we ask for long life for a month's time?

It is possible to live many years and yet live a short life. It is feasible to live few years and yet live a long life. As a wise man once said, "Life is not measured by the amount of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away." A month could be one full of long life or it can be a short-lived month. Both months last 30 days. The difference between them lies in how many meaningful moments were created during those 30 days. Thus, we ask God every month to help us experience our lives fully lived.

Whether we imagine the little bird on our shoulder or not, let's keep this in our consciousness: when we learn how to die, we will learn how to live.

July 16, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Yochanan, October 22, 2012 9:26 AM

I am experiencing great tsuris from a VERY acrimonious divorce. I only see my children once a week for an hour in a Therapeutic Visitation. But for that hour, such memories! For the whole week, in my memories,I see them and remember each word, each look, each minute. If I had only known the value of each second spent with them things may have turned out differently. But no regrets, just gratitude for the awareness of the beauty and majesty of each minute I can spend with them. Baruch Ha Shem for such wonderful minutes.

(7) Miryam, August 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Thank you

Rabbi, thank you for this article. Is true we need to learn how to live and appreciate every little thing and every moment and yes, live each day as if were the last.

(6) Anonymous, July 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Meaning of Memorable?

I noticed that Rabbi Leff enumerated one's wedding day or graduation as memorable days. However, I have met numerous people who claim not to remember much from such large events. Sure they remember the basic parts, and maybe a few select details. But as a whole, they cannot replay the whole event from beginning to end.

Yet people like this can sometimes describe another event with vivid details that may appear to the listener as one of less significance.

So are the abstract memories that people have, that are of seemingly less significance, at all in rank with ones that most certainly are important? If not, then why does our brain choose to grasp these events with so much detail, rather than more important ones? Is there a way to control this?

(5) meir shapiro, July 24, 2005 12:00 AM

What a "great" life

If you put a gun to my head, and threaten to shut if I do a wrong move, then I will also remember that my whole life, but what type of life is that?
And the same here; if you think you might die every day, it will make you remember your life, but what type a life is that, when all your thinking about is your death?

(4) Shushannah Dunklin, July 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Terminal was the greatest word I ever heard.

Several years ago I was told that with my particular condition at the stage that it was at, I had maybe five years to live. The bird came to my shoulder, it made me think of what I would regret if I never did it when I died. The first one was never seeing Jerusalem, the second was never taking horse back riding lessions. Due to that little bird, I am happy to report that I have been to Jerusalem twice, and I have been riding for three years. In a more recent visit to the doctor, he said all bets were off, I could live to be 100 or another 59 years whichever comes first.

Take to heart what this article says and embrace today, hold fast to the memories. You never know when the people and places that you take for granted will be taken from you, or you from them.

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