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.
- My Life in Jewish Renewal: A Memoir by Zalman Shachter-Shalomi
- Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer by Zalman Shachter-Shalomi with Joel Segel
- A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters by Zalman Shachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yepez