The Decem­ber Project: An Extra­or­di­nary Rab­bi and a Skep­ti­cal Seek­er Con­front Life’s Great­est Mystery

  • Review
By – March 13, 2014

A fair first ques­tion upon see­ing this book: Just what is Our Great­est Mys­tery?” It invites a deep­er read­ing of The Decem­ber Project. Soon the read­er is drawn into the dia­logue and reflec­tions on death between one of the great­est liv­ing reli­gious lead­ers (Rab­bi Zal­man Schachter-Shalo­mi) and a skep­ti­cal seek­er (the author, Sara David­son). The main focus of the book is Reb Zalman’s con­tin­u­ing jour­ney into old­er age. David­son, decades younger, prompts with intro­spec­tive uni­ver­sal queries about approach­ing the end of life, and the wis­dom that comes through this interac­tion is rich and pow­er­ful. Life, ques­tions, chal­lenges, tri­umphs, and search­ings inter­twine over two years of their week­ly meet­ings, illu­mi­nat­ed by flash­es for­ward and back­ward into oth­er sem­i­nal peri­ods and events in both of their lives. Each faces phys­i­cal, med­ical, and psy­cho­log­i­cal chal­lenges, which become touch­points for readers.

The scope and per­spec­tive make for com­pelling read­ing. The pur­pose, pro­posed by Reb Zal­man at eighty-five, to dis­cuss when you’re in the Decem­ber of your years and you know you’re com­ing to the end of your tour of duty. What is the spir­i­tu­al work of this time, and how do you pre­pare for the mys­tery?” This is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the sto­ry in Reb Zal­man’s decades-ear­li­er book From Aging to Sag­ing, a refin­ing of his life and death journey.

The Decem­ber Project alter­nates between their con­ver­sa­tions, Reb Zalman’s life sto­ries, and Davidson’s life and reflec­tions. David­son brings a broad scope of knowl­edge from many ages and tra­di­tions, from her ear­li­est encoun­ters with death, through Bud­dhist and main­stream Jew­ish per­spec­tives, and med­ical close encoun­ters, find­ing each lim­it­ing. She wants, as all of us do, to know answers, find solace, be at peace with death. And:

What I didn’t antic­i­pate was that our con­versations would lead to a sea change in the way I face what we all must face, regard­less of our beliefs or non-belief: mortality.”

At times, there seems to be a dis­con­nect between the seg­ments. We learn of Davidson’s brush­es with mor­tal­i­ty through ill­ness and phys­i­cal trauma:

…Once I had accept­ed the sit­u­a­tion (severe bod­i­ly lim­i­ta­tion), I took it as a warning…That comet (she had seen streak­ing across the sky) is your life, dar­lin’, and it’s in its final arc. Are you spend­ing the days the way you want? Isn’t that the Ques­tion, at any age? Are you spend­ing your one and only life the way you want?”

She also strives to have the read­er dis­cov­er and respect­ful­ly hon­or Reb Zalman’s life stream. Through this pen­e­trat­ing book, read­ers delve more into the life jour­ney of Reb Zalman’s leaps and bounds of faith and his sem­i­nal con­tri­bu­tions to Judaism and world wis­dom. Through sev­er­al recent vol­umes, Reb Zal­man has cho­sen a vari­ety of authors to pre­serve and per­pet­u­ate his rich lega­cy. Each author brings more of the kalei­do­scope of his influ­ence, chal­leng­ing reli­gious lead­ers and believ­ers to fur­ther their own development.

Through­out The Decem­ber Project book, strands of strate­gies for approach­ing death are inter­wo­ven with exam­ples from both lives. The read­er must draw them togeth­er from dis­parate places, and they form a tapes­try of sur­vival tools for the end of surviving.

David­son: What about the dark end?” I asked.

Reb Zal­man: I don’t think it’s all that dark. It’s as if the body and soul are tied togeth­er with lit­tle strings. The clos­er you get to leav­ing, the more the strings loosen and the more you con­nect with greater aware­ness, the expand­ed mind.”

The guid­ance giv­en through­out this unusu­al book is deep, uni­ver­sal, chal­leng­ing. Per­haps the most com­pre­hen­sive is the title of one ear­ly chap­ter: Make Room for Intu­ition, and Listen.”

There is so much more: Dis­en­gage with the body, accept, feel the Divine pres­ence, gath­er in the sto­ries, let go of fear, let go….

At the book’s end, there is a series of com­fort­ing exer­cis­es for con­fronting mor­tal­i­ty, cre­at­ed by Reb Zal­man, his lov­ing­ly sup­port­ive ther­a­pist and sto­ry­teller wife Eve Ilsen, and Davidson.

There will not be a list here of Reb Zal­man’s steps toward dis­en­gag­ing from life in this review. Read the book, grap­ple with and acknowl­edge his wis­dom; then wres­tle with your own ques­tions, chal­lenges, and doubts. None of us can tru­ly say what comes after, and yet Reb Zal­man, through Sara Davidson’s queries, gives us com­pas­sion­ate guide­posts for our own jour­ney and that of those around us.

Relat­ed Content:

Read Sara David­son’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

How the Rab­bi Hooked Me

How to Have The Talk”

The One Thing You Should Do the Day Before You Die

Cherie Karo Schwartz is a sto­ry­teller, author, and edu­ca­tor from Den­ver Col­orado. She was a co-found­ing coor­di­na­tor of the Jew­ish Sto­ry­telling Net­work of the Coali­tion for the Advance­ment of Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion. She has writ­ten My Lucky Drei­del, The Kids’ Cat­a­logue of Passover (with Bar­bara Rush), and Cir­cle Spin­ning: Jew­ish Turn­ing and Return­ing Tales. Cherie has shared spir­it-filled, engag­ing sto­ries, per­for­mances and work­shops around the USA and abroad for over forty years. www​.ham​sa​pubs​.com.

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