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One Day Before Death

by Tim O'Hearn

“Repent one day before your death.”
Rabbi Eleazar, Talmud, Shabbos 153a

“Be prepared.”
Boy Scout Motto

What do these two quotes have to do with each other? The first seems to be saying you should put off repentance until it is absolutely necessary. The other says do everything possible to be ready for every contingency. On the face, they would appear to contradict each other. But in fact they agree.

One of Rabbi Eleazar’s more brilliant students asked him, “How can I know what day I will die?” And of course, that is the point. Knowing that we cannot know the day of our death, then, we can see that the two quotes above are actually saying the same thing. We should always be prepared for death. If that means I need to repent, then I should have done so yesterday.

There is a riddle that asks, what is always almost here but never arrives? The answer, of course, is “tomorrow.” Sometime I wonder if the Devil invented tomorrow so he could have a day for everyone to put their good intentions. On the other hand, maybe God invented it for us to put our bad intentions there. However that may be, the only tomorrow we are guaranteed is the one from yesterday.

Jesus could talk of tomorrow. In Luke 13:32-33 he says, “Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following.” But then, Jesus knew in what day and in what manner he would die. Yet even he did not wait until the day before his death to repent.

We, on the other hand, must live expecting tomorrow, but not knowing it will come. We must agree with James (4:14), as hard as it is to do so, that “ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” When I lived in the Chicago area I frequently saw what James was saying. On my way to work some mornings the fog was so thick riding my bicycle was scary. But a mere two hours later the sun would be shining and I could see the traffic (which might have been even scarier). Today is a fog. Soon we will have the light of heaven. But until then, you must “repent one day before your death.” Every one day.

Of course, some people will say, “I plan on repenting one day.” Let us hope that “one day” is one day before their death. If that is what you are saying, remember that “one day” had better be today.