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YOM KIPPUR 5769

LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF DEATH

There is a story about a rabbi who gave a sermon one Shabbat about the importance of observing Shabbat. The next week, he gave the same sermon. The week after that, he gave the same sermon. The president of the synagogue finally said to him, “Rabbi, you’ve given the same sermon three weeks in a row.”

The rabbi replied, “Based on what I see, it hasn’t sunk in yet.”

It is a problem for rabbis to come up continually with new material. I like to say that I never give same sermon twice. Indeed, I keep changing my sermons as I go along, which is a reason why I hesitate to give people my texts; it is rare that the sermon as delivered is exactly the same as the sermon as written.

However, I have found that I keep coming back to certain topics and themes, and the topic that I want to address today is same one that I addressed on Yom Kippur a few years ago. In this situation, I rely on the saying attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, that one can never step into the same river twice, because, between the first and the second times, the river has been flowing, so the water in it is not the same. I am a different person, in the Heraclitan sense, than I was when I last spoke about living in the shadow of death, my subject for today.

Like many of us, I have had ample opportunity in the last few months to reflect on the subject. I have looked forward to Yizkor this year with a mixture of positive anticipation (having an opportunity to honor the memory of those who are gone, and to raise their memory before God) and apprehension (having all those experiences brought back again).

Almost every human being at some time suffers the loss of a relative, a friend, or an acquaintance. Without exception, we all die. I would think that that reality should have a significant impact on the way in which we live our lives. What might that be?

First, living with the consciousness of death should give our lives more urgency, intensity, and focus. The popular selection which we read near the end of today’s Musaf service makes that point:

“Lord, I have time / I have plenty of time / All the time you gave me, / The years of my life / The days of my years / The hours of my days / They are all mine / Mine to fill, quietly, calmly / But to fill completely, up to the brim.”

I would make this point with respect to three different kinds of pursuits or experiences. The first is things which have personal meaning for us, or which give us some pleasure. We should be sure to take advantage of opportunities to enjoy them. People often tell me that they want to take some trip “now, while they still are able to do so.”

That is a good idea. We ought to enjoy life as much as we can, and, as Robert Herrick wrote, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may / Old Time is still a-flying / And this same flower that smiles to-day / To-morrow will be dying.”

In Ecclesiastes 8, we read, “I therefore praised enjoyment. For the only good a person can have under the sun is to eat and drink and enjoy himself.”

Ecclesiastes, of course, was “cleaned up,” so to speak, when it was accepted into the canon, the officially accepted books of the Bible, and the targum, the rabbinically approved Aramaic translation, of the passage which I have just cited is “I praised the joy of the Torah, for there is no good for a person in this world, under the sun, other than to eat and drink, and rejoice in the fruits of his labor, and in what God has allotted him, and not to engage in robbery or take the results of oppression.”

That revised version suggests the second area of life in which we should engage intensely is that of so-called “higher pursuits.” For Judaism, there are no higher pursuits than Torah and mitzvot, and, in Avot 2, we learn, “Don’t say, ‘I’ll study Torah when I have leisure. You may never have leisure.”

There is a story in the Talmud Taanit about Nahum of Gamzu, who was approached by a man begging for food. Nahum said, “I will give you some food as soon as I unload my donkey.” Before he finished unloading the donkey, the man died. Once, I heard that the mother of a congregant, in the old Orthodox Home, had declined seriously. For whatever reason, I put off visiting her, and, before I could get here, she died. I felt terrible.

These last two examples involve mitzvot, but they also involve other people, and the third area of life in which we should feel a sense of urgency is that of our relationships with other people. In the Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia, we read how Rabbi Yohanan, one of the great sages of the 3rd century, had some harsh words for his colleague, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish. Before they could be reconciled, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish died, and Rabbi Yohanan was distraught. In the most recent issue of the Forward, Linda Kriger wrote of her difficult relationship with her parents:

I barely spoke to my parents for two years before their deaths. After a longtime strained relationship, I didn’t call them and they didn’t call me … At the end of their lives, I pledged never to feel regret.

However, after her parents’ deaths, she did feel regret, and it was too late to repair the relationship. Let’s not get ourselves into that situation. As Rabbi Tarfon said in Avot, “The day is short.” Who among us knows how long or how short our day is? For all kinds of worthwhile and important things, the saying of Hillel, also from Avot, applies: “If not now, when?”

If living with the awareness of death and mortality can add urgency and intensity to our lives, it also challenges us to respond to the evil and pain that we experience. People often misstate the title of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s best-selling book. People call it Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, but Kushner very deliberately titled his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. My own position is inspired, I think, more by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s "Kol Dodi Dofek" than by Kushner’s book, but, in any case, it rests on a distinction between an answer and a response.

People ask, “Why did this happen?” When we ask that, we are not looking, of course, for a medical explanation, but for an explanation of how someone’s death fits into God’s scheme for the Universe. I must say that, in most cases, we’ll never find an answer to that question. We have no answer to why someone died, but we can give a response when the person has died.

The first Jewish response is to observe aveilut, mourning. Although I have come to recognize and respect the variety of human situations, I think that, in general, the traditional practices of mourning help us to confront the reality of our loss, and then gradually to return to “normal” (a new normal) life, with the help of the community.

The second Jewish response to death is to make life better. An obvious example is to support research on the disease from which the person died. More broadly, our living better, taking the life of our loved one as an example, is a good response to our loss.

I mentioned Nahum of Gamzu, who was too late in giving tzedakah. The traditional explanation of his name was that, whenever anything happened to him – and some absolutely horrible things happened – he would say, “Gam zu l’tovah.” (This, too, is for the best)

To say that I don’t share his attitude is to put it mildly. I go by something which I heard from a rabbi (whose name I have forgotten) in Israel, when I was there in the early 70s. He said, quoting Deut. 12:4, “Lo taasun ken Lashem Elokekha.”

In context that sentence means that we should not destroy the name of God, as we are supposed to destroy the names of idols. However, this rabbi meant by it, “Don’t be a’yes-man’ to God.” He was speaking about the Holocaust, but we could apply the maxim also to personal tragedies. Yet, the traditional Jewish burial prayer, Tzidduk Hadin, starts with the words, “Hatzur tamim po-olo” – “The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are righteous.”

It is not good to remain estranged from God. I feel a great conflict about saying Tzidduk Hadin at the graveside. On the one hand, I believe strongly that it must be said, because it affirms an order in the universe at a time when we may feel that order tottering. On the other hand, that affirmation, made specifically at that time, may come as a slap in the face to the mourners. It may be a stretch, a long reach, for us to become reconciled with God after bereavement; Tzidduk Hadin gives us something for which to reach.

Finally, living in the shadow of death may make us ask if death has the last word. It certainly seems as if it does. Yet, historically, Judaism has maintained the contrary. Few things annoy me as much as the superficial liberal claim that Jews don’t believe in Heaven or Hell. Historically, most Jews have believed in Heaven and Hell. However, the question for each of us is, “What do I believe?”

Now, no one can tell someone else what to believe, but I can tell you what I believe, and perhaps you will find it interesting.

First, I acknowledge the reality of death, rupture, and loss. To say, as some do, that death is an illusion is to imply that life is an illusion. Some are willing to say that, but I am not one of them. Those who are gone are gone. We will never again see them or hear their voices. Second, I would like to find some validation for my feeling that death, although real, is not final, that there is some way in which we transcend death. My feeling is a moral one, expressed well by Abraham’s address to God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”

Judgment, reward, and punishment, are at the center of Judaism, but the universal sweep of death seems to make a mockery of the whole system. Finally, I would hope that I could find something in Jewish tradition, which is so important to me, that would meet the condition which I stated first and answer the need which I stated second.

What works best for me is the one doctrine on the subject which has achieved canonical status in Judaism, t’hiat hametim, the resurrection of the dead, for which we praise God in each of our daily prayers. It is Rabbi Neil Gillman’s excellent book, The Death of Death, which I read once a number of years ago, and then again, a different person, more recently, that has brought me to that realization.

Now, if your picture of t’hiat hametim is that of graves opening and people jumping out of them, then you are not getting the point (although I must say that it is very hard to avoid that picture). We have to understand the doctrine symbolically (a flat-footed term, but the best one for this situation).

What does t’hiat hametim represent, in terms of our lives? What does it say? It says that what is most real about us is our body-soul combination. An emphasis on the distinction between body and soul and a general preference for the soul and its activities have a long history and an honorable place in Judaism, but I prefer to emphasize the other side, the combination. T’hiat hametim says that we and what we do in our embodied and ensouled state have ultimate value, that God values them. T’hiat hametim says that God, the Creator of the universe (a concept which we also understand symbolically), the One who cares for us as we are here and now, is stronger than death.

When I first read Gillman’s book, I found myself agreeing with him all the way along, until he got to his conclusion. It seemed to me that, despite his statement that death is real, t’hiat hametim, even as he explained it, denied that reality. After all, it is the physical being of our loved ones that is so achingly missing. To say that they live or will live again in bodily form seems to deny the reality of our loss.

What I have come to realize is that the conventional idea that t’hiat hametim will be at some time in the future is a way of saying that it is not with us here and now. Here and now, in our day-to-day experience, we are alive, and those who are gone are gone. An Iron Curtain (so to speak) separates us. The question is whether faith can take us beyond our day-to-day experience. I would say that, if we can believe in God who appears to us in fragmentary, enigmatic, and sometimes disturbing ways, but who abides also beyond the confused welter of our experience, then perhaps we can believe that those whom we have cherished, but who have disappeared from our sides, share in that wholeness of being, with God.

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