Confronting Death (2014)

Religion is humanity’s attempt to answer the largest questions of life. Looming behind
every question we encounter is our quest to understand what happens when we pass from this
earth. Death is our shared destiny. One day of the Jewish calendar we embrace this allconsuming fact.
We do not know when, but our fate is the same, healthy or ailing, young or old,
peaceful or troubled. We imagine the scales of justice ruling in our favor – if we only do better,
try harder, surely if there is a God, He will allow me to beat this illness; avoid this tragedy. I will
enjoy my family for one more month, one more day, one more breath. We deny, ignore, avoid,
we run from the inevitability of death. Our society is built upon the premise that the right
product, the right supplements, the right choices, the right luck can push death away, and perhaps
defeat it altogether.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet cries: “but that the dread of something after death, the
undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will. And makes us
rather bear those ills we have, than to fly to others that we know not of. Thus conscience makes
cowards of us all.”

The reason we run is fear. Every one of us has faced this fear, or will. The
psychologist Irvin Yalom writes, “death whirs continuously beneath the membrane of life and
exerts a vast influence upon experience and conduct.”2
We fear death. Over the centuries, poets
and playwrights, psychologists and philosophers have all attempted to resolve this fundamental
part of our psyche.
We know that death is a part of life – in deep recesses we carry that knowledge always.
All that lives and breathes must die. Although living forever would be a curse not a blessing, we
pursue eternity, we push all thoughts of death away; many of us are uncomfortable even talking
about it at all.
We know with our intellect, that death is the most natural part of life. Birth and growth
and decay and death are so deeply connected they are one. Heschel wrote, “Existence embraces
both life and death, and in a way death is the test of the meaning of life.”

To avoid thinking about death is to avoid thinking about life, to exist in denial, to miss the opportunity to choose
life. Yom Kippur holds up a mirror and asks us to really look, to allow for the possibility, the
inevitability of death.

The specific death anxieties we experience are diverse, but at some point we all feel the
chill. The more irrational our fear, the stronger its grip over us. We fear the cold, we fear
loneliness. We fear the claustrophobia we might experience, placed in a box, buried in the
ground. We show concern for who might be buried near us, or how landscaped the cemetery
might or might not be, as if we will notice or care, in death. A part of us knows these concerns
make no sense, but the anxiety produced by our feelings is real; and can be debilitating.
And there are other, more rational reasons we feel afraid. We know that death is often
accompanied by pain and suffering. We live not knowing how or when we will die, if we will
have any chance to say goodbye. We do not want to be alone; we want to know we will be
missed. And although many claim to have special access, in fact we know very little about what
comes after. Will we be held accountable in some way for mistakes we made? Will we finally
understand what this life was all about, or will we start over in some unimaginable new reality?

These are real fears, and I do not pretend to know the answers to unanswerable questions.
But Judaism presents us with a record of our ancestors search for meaning in their lives, asking
the very same questions, addressing the same fears. Yom Kippur does not only push us outside
our comfort zone, it also provides the balm that soothes and comforts.
Rava, while seated at the bedside of his teacher Rabbi Nachman, saw him sinking into the
eternal slumber of death. The teacher asks the student, “I am tormented by the angel of death.
Tell him to leave me in peace.” Rava said, “You are a great teacher, what can I tell the angel of
death that you cannot?” Rabbi Nachman said, “No one is great, or distinguished when facing of
the angel of death. And as he neared death, Rava asked him to visit in dream from the other side,
which he later did. In that dream Rava asked his former teacher, “When you died, did you suffer
pain?,” And Rabbi Nachman’s reply? “It hurt as [little as] plucking a hair out of a saucer of
milk. If God gave me the opportunity to come back to the world, I would not want to, because of
how much the living fear death.”

Rava is sitting with his teacher who is in unbearable pain. And as his teacher dies, he
desperately wants to continue to learn from what his teacher is experiencing. If only we could
converse with our loved ones who have passed.
How many of us hold onto the wish that we might sit at a table and just talk with someone who
has left us – to know that they are okay, and to ask them the ultimate question behind our fears –
what was death like? Rabbi Nachman’s response is beautiful in its simplicity: death is as
painless as plucking a hair from a saucer of milk. And given the choice, I would choose not to
live again, because the unnecessary fear of death is so overwhelming for the living. The
teacher’s voice comes back from the grave, to offer assurance that our fears are in vain, that the
next world is more beautiful than we can imagine.

Rabbi Maurice Lamm has written extensively of Jewish rituals and beliefs surrounding
death and mourning. He suggests that we can no more imagine life after death than an embryo
could imagine the world that awaits his or her birth.

Just as birth is the most natural conclusion to pregnancy, we know that death is a natural transition also.
The only proof we need is that everyone that has ever lived has experienced this journey. All of life’s passages lead to growth.
We have many metaphors for this passage – a ship returning to port, a child called back
to his or her parent. Each image contains a seed of comfort that our experience of this world
might teach us something about the next. The metaphors do offer us a degree of solace. We
hope and pray that death will feel like returning home. Instead of feeling lost and afraid, we
might feel familiarity and comfort. Instead of feeling alone and unmoored, we might feel
connected and rooted.

Our deepest fear comes from important existential questions we have been unwilling to
ask. Will we be forgotten? Do our lives make a difference? Why must we grow old and die?
How should we best prepare for death? The Buddhist monk Sogyal Rinpoche who wrote the
Tibetan Book of Living and Dying said that when he first came to the West, he was shocked by
our denial and lack of understanding of death. He saw how devoted we are to materialism, youth
and power;
how we treat our elderly not as sources of wisdom but as responsibilities and obligations; how
we build our lives on false foundations, not taking into account the fact of death. He writes:

“We so desperately want everything to continue as it is that we have to believe that things
will always stay the same. But this is only make-believe… No matter how much the truth keeps
interrupting, we prefer to go on trying…to keep up our pretense… When we finally know we are
dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost
heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being; and from
this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.”

An awareness of death leads to an awareness and appreciation for life, and compassion
for others. “A sorrowing woman approached a great sage with the plea that he bring back to life
her only son, who had just died.

The sage told her that he could indeed comply with her request on one condition: she must bring
him a mustard seed from a home that was entirely free from sadness.
The woman set out to accomplish what appeared to be a relatively simple task. But years
went by and she didn’t return. One day the sage accidentally ran into the woman but hardly
recognized her, she looked so radiant. He asked her why she had never returned to him.

“I went in search of the seed, as you asked. But I went into homes so burdened with
trouble and sorrow that I could not just walk out. Who better than I could understand how heavy
was the burden these people were bearing? Who better than I could offer them the support they
needed? So I stayed in each home as long as I could be of service. The honest truth is that I
never again thought of returning.” The point is not to avoid or defy death,
but to live with acceptance and with empathy for others, which leads to peace in this life, and
peace when our own life draws to a close.

The prayer book reminds us, “in truth grief is a great teacher, when it sends us back to
serve and bless the living.” Our lives become filled with meaning and purpose when we connect
with others and help them by sharing our experience. This is why countless Jewish texts tell us
that mitzvot – good deeds or right actions in this world – are actually investments we make in the
next world. It is a powerful metaphor that helps us foster a sense of faith. “Eilu D’varim…” we
chant in the morning liturgy – these are the things we enjoy the interest of in this world, while
the principle remains for the world to come. The spiritual realm of Olam Habah, the world to
come, is filled with the righteous deeds of this world.

In one of my favorite stories, a rabbi is asked by an oppressive ruler to provide a list of
his property for the purposes of the ruler’s taxes. The rabbi prepares a short list and the ruler is
“You haven’t listed anything here,” he cries – “no house, no animals, no land! Nothing I can
tax!” The rabbi responds, “You asked me to prepare a list of those things I own. You are the
King, and at any time you could choose to take away from me my house, my animals, my land. I
made a list of those things I truly own – the tzedakah I have given away. Those are my
belongings stored for me in the next world, and you cannot take those things away from me.”
This is the Jewish worldview – informed by generations who saw their material
possessions stripped from them, oppression beyond our imagination. We must stay focused on
priorities. Mitzvot: comforting those in mourning, rejoicing with the wedding couple, studying
for its own sake, welcoming strangers – these actions give our lives purpose and meaning, and
prepare the way for us to enter a joyous next world, sitting at the foot of God’s throne of glory.
When we die, these actions will accompany us, you can take it with you. And that powerful idea
makes the finality of death easier to bear.

This Jewish thought is summarized by our High Holy Day liturgy – we read: teshuvah,
tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roah hagezeirah. Death comes for us all. But living our lives
through our values – the teshuvah of setting our priorities and living by them, the tefillah of selfreflection and contemplation, the tzedakah of helping others – these allow us to see death not as
some decree from “on high”, but rather a natural part of the cycle of life – the part that makes life
sacred and holy.

Embracing this approach is easier said than done. As with most important lessons in life,
accepting death as a part of life is about sitting with the tension between two opposite poles. The
ancient rabbis have a story for this as well. “Each person” they say “should have two pockets,
each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes,
and on the other: the entire world was created for me
And from time to time we must reach into one pocket or the other. The secret of living comes
from knowing when to reach into which pocket.”

The quote, “I am but dust and ashes,” is a reminder that we were created out of nothing
more than dust, and to the dust we shall one day return. Perhaps we imagine pulling out this
strip of paper on a day when our problems seem too big to handle, like the weight of the world
rests on our shoulders. “I am but dust and ashes – nothing as significant as I might imagine. My
problems are small, they are similar to every other person’s problems, let me not sweat the small

But on the other hand… “the entire world was created for me.” We remember the
Genesis story. Humanity is the crowning glory of all creation. We are here to subjugate,
dominate, and populate the world. God’s creation is here for our resource and our pleasure, and I
am that Adam, that human being who has the godlike potential to create worlds. On a day when
I am feeling particularly down, insignificant, unappreciated and small, this story of creation, and
of my place in it, might bring me comfort as well.

These two slips of paper contain answers to life’s biggest questions. Why am I here?
The entire world was created for me. What awaits me in death? I am but dust and ashes. Each
quote is actually a reminder of a Jewish story. Contained within the story – The world was
created for me – is the creation story of Beresheit: the sense that I am merely another of God’s
creations, as mighty as I become. And nested in the story of, “I am but dust and ashes,” which is
Abraham’s story of bargaining with God for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, we find
Abraham’s spiritual audacity. Even while admitting he is of little merit, he has no qualms about
taking his place across the negotiating table from God; God cares about us as partners in the
ongoing work of creating the world.

Living with these two slips of paper in our pockets gives us a blueprint for life, and
comfort in the face of death. It helps us fill our lives with mitzvot, not for the reward of ego or
conscience, but for the opportunity to make every moment of life meaningful, so that death
becomes meaningful. When I am fearful of the possibility of eternal nothingness, I simply look
in my pockets, and I am reminded that this world was created for me, that I am God’s partner in
creation, and that God meant this journey for me, in all of its stages. Even the strongest
irrational fears may be laid to rest as I remind myself that this world is proof that we are not
alone, in life or in death. Like everyone else, we are dust and ashes, and will return to mother
earth on our final journey home.

Yom Kippur comes each year to ask us to look seriously at death, because we know it is
the only way we might look seriously at life. Many of our worst fears keep us from having the
conversations we know we need to have, keep us from living life fully.
One curious comment from the Talmud explains that Yom Kippur should actually be a day of
great joy rather than sadness. If we have done our work of teshuvah this year; if we have been
willing to be honest with ourselves and to start to make the changes that will lead us to a more
meaningful life, then we might embrace whatever fate has in store for us in the coming year, and
that can make this a day of joy. We hope and pray for life, for long years of happiness and
health. But we will also accept with dignity and grace the short time we are granted.