Rabbi Eliezer’s statement emphasizes the importance of teshuvah, of acknowledging our mistakes, making amends, and resolving to do better. Most of us are familiar with teshuvah--repentance or return--as the central theme of the Days of Awe, running from the beginning of the month of Elul through Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Yom Kippur. But while that sacred season may place extra emphasis on this process, the Rabbis are quick to note that the mitzvah of teshuvah applies every day of the year. The Amidah prayer, which is traditionally recited thrice daily, invokes God’s assistance in this endeavor: Cause us to return, and bring us back in whole-hearted repentance.
Rabbi Eliezer’s maxim—Repent one day before your death—raises the obvious difficulty: Except in rare circumstances, we don’t know when we’re going to die. This, of course, is precisely the point. As Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz writes:
We must be in a continual state of self-repair to ensure that we are all doing all we can to improve ourselves, our relationships, and the state of the world. Each day we repent for our mistakes and resolve them. Each day, we strive to fortify the personal intent and strategic rigor to actualize our unique potential.
To be a mensch is to recognize that we are all works-in-progress, to continue to learn and grow a little bit every day until we meet our inevitable demise. Or, as Bob Dylan reminded us, anyone not busy being born is busy dying.
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