Judgment Day (May 21, 2011) has come and gone without the predicted earthquakes and opened graves, but it’s still possible to gain some important insight from the deluded true believers who so earnestly expected the end of the world.
The Oakland-based Family Radio Ministries, with more than 200 broadcast stations and $56 million in assets reported to the IRS, purchased full-page ads in major newspapers, including USA Today, bought bus signs in major cities, and campaigned tirelessly to warn people of the Saturday apocalypse. On the Friday before the big day, I spent a full hour on my radio show with Gunther von Harringa, an articulate pastor and father of 15 affiliated with the group. When I asked how he might react if the sun set on May 21 with no major disruptions in ordinary life, he refused to entertain the possibility—or to commit himself to return to my show to discuss his disappointment on the Monday after the expected end of days.
Most touchingly, he said he planned to use the final hours to warn as many unsaved souls as possible but then would gather with friends and family to affirm their love and to watch media coverage of the climactic events.
Although I personally harbor no expectation of witnessing the final moments of planet Earth, my conversation with Rev. von Harringa led me to reflect on how I might wish to arrange my own final hours if fortunate enough to enjoy some choice in the matter.
The sad spectacle of fanatics preparing for the end of the world ought to encourage all of us to live our own days as if we were approaching some definitive conclusion.
Inevitably, that line of thinking recalled my father’s final days, four of which I spent with him, before he lost a long battle with lymphoma on March 11, 2009. It’s profoundly comforting to know that he managed to spend the last week of his life almost exactly as he might have wished. My brother Jonathan, who lives with his family close to the home my dad had established in Jerusalem for the last 20 years of his life, had scheduled a gala celebration to honor our father’s 83rd birthday. There’s an increasingly popular tradition in Jewish life to observe a “second bar mitzvah” exactly 70 years after the first one at age 13.
For my dad, this meant reading the entire biblical portion from the Torah scrolls in synagogue on the prior Saturday—a major accomplishment for a physics professor who had only become religious in his 50s. And then, the next Thursday he attended a lavish meal at his favorite Kurdish-kosher restaurant in beautiful Jerusalem forest just down the hill from the hospital where he received his chemotherapy. His grandchildren provided musical entertainment, and nearly 100 friends and admirers came forward to express their admiration with toasts and tributes. Most important, my brother Harry and I made the long journey from the United States to join the festivities and were thrilled to see my father’s joy and gratitude.
The next Sabbath, we went together on a boys-only adventure—my dad, with the three sons—to the Dead Sea, where we stayed at a Sabbath-observant resort, feasted on marvelous meals, soaked in the sun and scenery, and talked and joked and reminisced. Early the following day, Harry and I got on the plane together to fly home to America, and within hours of our arrival we got the news that my dad had died, gently and suddenly, having just ordered, with great anticipation, a plate of lamb chops to celebrate the joyous Purim Festival. We turned around immediately and made it back to Israel for the funeral and the seven days of mourning.
In one of my favorite formulations, the British novelist E.M. Forster wrote that “death destroys a man, but knowledge of death can save him.”
With that in mind, the sad spectacle of faithful fanatics intently preparing for the end of the world ought to encourage all of us to live more of our own days as if we were approaching some definitive conclusion. On this issue, I don’t believe there’s a sharp divide between Christians or Jews, religious or secular. Few Americans would choose to invest their last days in drunken revelry or playing slots at Vegas. Most of us would prefer shared moments with people we love and conversations that matter, with perhaps one more opportunity to savor the beauties of the natural world we will ultimately lose.
On the Saturday the Family Radio Ministries had designated for the world’s end, it occurred to me that this approach conformed to every detail of the traditional Sabbath. Philosophers and sages might urge us to live every day as if it might be our last, but observing Shabbat provides a framework for doing just that.
You gather for festive meals with friends and family, savoring the best available wines and lovingly prepared delicacies. According to tradition, the table talk should include religious discussion and consideration of holy texts. You also make your way to synagogue services on foot (no automotive transport), which involves a deeper appreciation of surroundings in your own neighborhood and provides still more communal connection.
Most important, Sabbath observance liberates you from the tyranny of the urgent—no ringing telephones, or beeping messages, or alarming news broadcasts. Specific injunctions prevent engagement in preparations for the week ahead; like those expecting the end of the world, Sabbath observers are, in our case temporarily, liberated from deadlines, or the need to make progress on projects, or to improve the world as you received it on sundown of Friday night.
The Sabbath is, in fact, described as a “taste of the world to come”—signifying the weekly deliverance of the faithful from the toils of mortality. But unlike the shattered souls who awaited their May Judgment Day in vain, we can return to the workday week renewed by fresh energy and sharper perspective.
Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated daily radio talk show heard by more than 4 million listeners. He is also the author of 12 nonfiction books, most recently The 5 Big Lies About American Business.