The High Holidays focus on death so that we may renew our lives.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Way (Touchstone).
Judaism's general response to the fact of death is to fight back. Life is given the highest priority. All but three laws of the Torah are overruled to save a life from death. The physician is commanded to heal. Even partial triumphs--a sickness cured, some months of life snatched from the domain of death--constitute a fulfillment of the command.
When someone dies, the mourner steps forward and, through recitation of the Kaddish, testifies that this family has not yielded to the crushing defeat. In effect, the survivors pledge to carry on, for the deceased as well as for themselves in the army of the Lord, among the soldiers of life. In essence, the Kaddish prayer affirms that God's kingdom of total perfection and total life will be brought speedily into being, preferably in this very lifetime.
The one notable exception to the arm's-length treatment of death is the period of the High Holy Days. During this cluster of days, this tradition deliberately concentrates the individual's attention on death.
Daily Gift of Life
Human beings cannot be mature until they encompass a sense of their own mortality. To recognize the brevity of human existence gives urgency and significance to the totality of life. To confront death without being overwhelmed, driven to evasions, or dulling the senses is to be given life again as a daily gift. People generally experience this gift through a trauma: an accident or a critical illness or the death of someone close. Too often the encounter fades as the presence of death recedes and the round of normal life becomes routine reality. In the Jewish calendar, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) structure the imaginative encounter with death into an annual experience in the hope that the experience will recur to liberate life continually....
In the period of the High Holy Days, tradition guides the individual to take up the challenge of death on three levels. One is to deal with the constant gradual, partial encroachment of death in one's own life. Life is also a process of dying. Routine and stagnation are forms of death in life. People often stop growing long before they are recognized as dead. Such a "dead" person cannot be an agent of redemption. The tradition holds that the key to vital living is perpetual renewal of life; it seeks to attain that renewal by generating a continual process of examining life and constant rebirth. The awareness of being judged for life and death is a stimulus to stop living routinely.
The second level of the challenge is to deal with encountering abrupt, total death itself. Starting before and going through this period, the Jew focuses on the vulnerability of life and the limits of the human. People rediscover that "our entire life is God's mercy; by miracle we stand--but miracles may not happen every day" [in the words of Rabbi Israel Salanter, a leading 19th-century traditionalist thinker].