The December Project: Confronting Life's Greatest Mystery

What Happens After Death, Our Interview With Sara Davidson

The subject of death and dying can silence the bravest among us. Few are willing to sit together week after week and really get to the bones of the subject, but that's just what author Sara Davidson and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi did. Week after week they met each Friday and talked for one hour. Rabbi Zalman, a man of great experience and deep faith, and Davidson, a woman, a writer, and self-confessed skeptic. He knew what he wanted: to talk about what he termed "the December Years." At 85, Rabbi Zalman was ready to empty his vessel and talk, really talk, about the questions most of us spend our whole lives avoiding: Is there something beyond this life? Is there only nothing? Who will I, or my loved one be, without memory? Will, or most likely when, will my body fail me? Have I accomplished what I am meant to do on this earth? What will the end be like? He wanted people "not to freak out about dying," and so the result of their conversations became a book, The December Project.

The December Project is extraordinary in that it does not attempt to definitively answer the big questions most of us ask. It is a conversation, not a diatribe. Rabbi Zalman is not simply a Hasidic Jew basing his beliefs on an ancient faith. In common vernacular, Rabbi Zalman has been around the block. He escaped the Nazis in Austria; became an orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn; landed in San Francisco; took LSD with Timothy Leary; befriended many men of faith, including Thomas Merton and the Dali Lama; and founded the Jewish Renewal Movement. Rabbi Zalman was made honorary sheikh in the Sufi order and ended his career holding the World Wisdom Chair in a Buddhist university. He married three times and fathered 11 children. Having lived this long and this big, having lived a life of both faith and family, he lends a voice and validity to this book that will invite readers of all faiths -- and lack of faith -- to open its pages and ask questions.

Sara Davidson is a New York Times bestselling author of eight books. She has written for the New York Times, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone. She has been featured on The Today Show and 60 Minutes. Davidson lends balance to the December Project in that she is Jewish but does not practice any particular faith. She is a self-professed skeptic, and all that Rabbi Zalman wanted was to "loosen her mind." During their two-year conversation, she had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan with a community of journalists. The decision to go would put her in harm's way. Davidson missed, by just days, being killed by a suicide bomber. This near miss allowed her to go even deeper into her own questions about death and dying.

Sara, what drew you to say yes to this project? Did you ever wonder if you were "right for the job," being rather skeptical, or did you feel that made you the ideal counter-voice for this book?

Sara Davidson: I am Jewish, but I am not a devotee of the Jewish religion. All my life I was terrified of the brutal annihilation of death. I had never heard a description of the afterlife that attracted me -- reincarnation, rising to a greater consciousness, none of it appealed to me. I was terrified of dying because I had nothing to grasp onto. In Rabbi Zalman I could face those fears with someone who was my exact opposite. He was wholly committed to believing that "there is something more."

You wrote (page 14) that Thurman said, "We believe life ends in nothing. Scratch a person who has faith in the afterlife and you'll find, buried under piles of concepts and hope, a fear that it all may lead to nothing. But there is no such thing as nothing. There is no material 'nothing' . . . So why do we have this core belief that life ends in nothing?" This is fascinating! I think most people connote nothing with a lack of consciousness. Will we still be ourselves, so to speak, in whatever is beyond? Now that The December Project is complete, what has replaced your "nothing?"

SD: I still don't have any certainty that it isn't nothing; however, I don't have the fear of it anymore. That is the result of the two years of weekly conversation with Rabbi Zalman. Something changed being around someone so spiritually evolved, so open and funny, and being with someone who had no fears. At the time I was surrounded by death -- my mother, other family members, and, perhaps most of all, a dear friend whom I thought I would grow old with. Then I went to Afghanistan and missed by a few days being killed by a suicide bomb that hit the dwelling where I had stayed. Just after that I got sick. I went to see a healer, a chiropractor, where I had this experience lying on his table. I knew that it's OK to die. Not that it's going to happen right now, but when it does happen, it will be OK. I had this image of riding in a sleigh, covered in blankets, and the sleigh was heading toward faraway lights. They were welcoming and warm, and that was the image I got -- a warm, welcoming, OK experience.

My hope is that everyone who reads this book -- at any age -- will find it comforting. I hope they will do some of the exercises at the end of the book and that they will feel a loosening. The practice of letting go -- even letting go of the affection, and time, and the people we love -- of not holding on so tight and being so terrified.

You (and Rabbi Zalman) address the taboo subject of suicide in The December Project. He speaks about active versus passive suicide (taking your own life by pills or acts of violence versus choosing not to eat or drink). In some other cultures, such as in Sweden, suicide does not carry the stigma that is does here in the U.S. Was this a subject you two agreed upon, or as a writer were you concerned about how your audience would accept the idea of Rabbi Zalman being in favor of passive suicide? How has your audience received this much-needed conversation?

SD: Nobody's brought it up! It's an appropriate thing to choose to refuse food or nutrients, and if a person changes their mind, that's OK. It's very controversial. No one rule fits everyone. It's important for all of us, at any age, to make it known with our intimates what our wishes are. It's never too soon to do that. It causes such conflict within families. People die suddenly at every age.

Can you share the story of the Rabbi giving you a coin, which you carried with you to Afghanistan, and what it taught you -- and continues to teach you?

SD: Generosity. A mitzvah is a good deed or act of kindness. Rabbi Zalman instructed that I exchange the coin for an Afghan coin and then give it to someone. Some people believe that if you do this you won't be harmed. I don't necessarily believe that, but I do believe it connects people.

The most controversial part, of course, is the people we pass on the street. It makes me uncomfortable. I look away. I don't know whether to give or not give, what they might do with the money. Rabbi Zalman says, "It's not my business what they do with it. It's my business to respond." After being in the Holocaust, he said, "Do you know what it's like to beg?"

The question is, do you want to respond or not? I remember my mother, she always gave. Various solicitations for donations, she gave, she just did. The coin has reminded me that I have the fortune, the ability to give a little bit when a hand is reached out.

Forgiveness is something that comes up when the conversation turns to the end of life. Why do you think that's so important? Is it all about regret or is there something more, some deeper need to make things right? Even Rabbi Zalman said, "I'm in December, and forgiving is top priority."

SD: Forgiveness is about the one who needs to forgive. If you carry rage and resentment, it creates suffering -- not for the person you're angry at but for you. It's important to do our forgiveness work all along the way. It's an easier and lighter way to live. The old Indian adage, "Do not judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins," still rings true.

Captured by the Nazis, Eva Mozes Kor and her twin sister, Miriam, were used in experiments by Dr. Mengele. Later in life Eva, who had moved to Indiana, gave an interview and said, "At first I was adamant that I could never forgive Dr. Mengele, but then I realized I had the power now . . . the power to forgive. It was my right to use it. No one could take it away."

Jesus said, "Forgive those who are killing me." It goes back to letting go. You don't have to be friends, or reconcile. There are three parts to forgiveness: Ask for forgiveness from those you have harmed; the second is letting go of those who have harmed you; and for the third you don't need anyone, the third is forgiving yourself. This is perhaps the most difficult.

Sara wanted to close this interview by sharing one last thought.

SD: The December Project is not a book for just the dying, but for people who want to live to the fullest, and by facing mortality they can let go. Our intention, as Rabbi Zalman stated, was "to help people not freak out about dying." Getting up close with mortality will allow us to have a more grateful and graceful way of life.

*Editors Note: Rabbi Zalman passed away in July 2014.


about 4 years, said...

We are not to judge any one and live by our judgements. We should forgive those caused suffering to us by taking away what we had or cheated us for making gains for themselves unconditionally. It will free us from suffering and keep us happly to get along with our life otherwise you will get struck where you are.

about 4 years, said...

I am really pleased with this article of forgiveness.those who forgive are great men than those who ask for forgiveness.