Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die

Published in the Huffington Post

Today I am sitting at my son’s graveside. It is where I have spent the last ten Yom Kippur holidays. This is called the Day of Atonement. Most Jews spend this holiest of days in synagogue praying and fasting. We are tasked with evaluating our behavior and asking for forgiveness. I used to do it this way.

After Simon died, I couldn’t stand to be in synagogue on Yom Kippur anymore. Other days were fine. In fact, following his death, I spent every Friday night for an entire year in services. That was very therapeutic. However, Yom Kippur is different because of one poem.

“On Rosh Ha’Shana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed! Who shall live and who shall die; who by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast . . ..”

I’d been reading this poem for at least two decades. As a congregation, we read it aloud. However, I never really gave it much thought until now.

Simon’s death changed everything.

The poem is called U’N’Taneh Tokef. It is recited during the Jewish Holy Days (Rosh Ha’Shana and Yom Kippur). It is based on the story of Rabbi Amnon who refused to convert to Christianity. As a result, he was tortured and dismembered. Despite his grave condition, he demanded to go to synagogue on Rosh Ha’Shana (the Jewish New Year). At this service, he recited the poem, a few other prayers, and then died. For generations, people have been inspired by this story and his conviction.

So there I sat on Monday, October 2, 2006, eight months after my son died, really hearing this prayer for the first time. I was horrified and confused. I walked out.

Simon was three months old. He wasn’t alive for a Rosh Ha’Shana or Yom Kippur. How could he have been judged? What could he have possibly done to seal his fate of “death by cardiac arrest?”

Was it my husband or me? Did we do something so terrible that resulted in his death sentence?

This can’t be how it really works. There are murderers who live in prison for decades. There are families who get wiped out by genocide well before their time. This can’t be how it works.

I had two choices. I could conclude that I did something so bad to warrant this consequence, or I could just reject the text.

So for the last ten years, I have rejected this poem and the service. I have spent the day with my son struggling to make sense of his death and this unimaginable poem. However, during this process, I found a third choice.

I don’t need to take this poem literally. I can read in between the lines.

Here’s my version. We should spend a day reflecting on our lives and scrutinizing our behavior. We all have our faults. We all have room for improvement.

There isn’t a supreme being keeping score and handing out death sentences. That just doesn’t make sense. However, maybe the poem is actually suggesting that our actions, or lack thereof, lead to tragic consequences of others.

All religions teach compassion – feed the poor, clothe the naked and take care of the sick. If we do to these things, aren’t we playing a role in who shall live and who shall die? Could this be what the prayer is inspiring us to do?

For all of these years, sitting here with Simon, I wondered if his death was a grave consequence. Now, I realize that it was a motivating factor. From his passing, lives have been saved and an organization was born.

After Simon died, I discovered my heart condition, Long QT Syndrome, a potentially fatal arrhythmia. This condition is responsible for up to 15% of all sudden infant deaths (SIDS). It is also one of a few conditions that take the lives of thousands of students every year. Simon saved my life.

Soon thereafter, my husband and I started Simon’s Fund that has provided free heart screenings to over 11,000 students, helping about 100 discover heart conditions. It has advocated for a law that protects over 2 million student athletes across this country (more to come). It has informed tens of millions of parents that sudden cardiac arrest isn’t just an adult thing. Simon’s actions have changed the fate of other children.

The poem ends with the phrase “but repentance, prayer and righteousness revoke the evil decree.” However, I am adding a fourth element, self-sacrifice. Simon’s sacrifice has changed the course of so many lives.

This is the message that I want to take away from this Day of Awe. Whatever the struggles or transgressions, we can change the course of our future, through repentance, prayer, righteousness and self-sacrifice. I wish you a safe, healthy and happy year.

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