No subject has fascinated mankind more, in every age and culture, than that of death. It is the great certainty. Since Adam’s sin, all have known they must die. None is exempt. A Simchat Torah piyyut says, “Moses died, who shall not die?” Indeed, without death, says the Midrash, one generation would never make way for another: so death has to be part of God’s pattern for history. There is no immunity from sorrow. Death is part of life. The people you love can die, and do.
But with all our millennia of experience of death, it remains a great mystery. What is it to die? What is death? Is it an end, or a transition? In Judaism we have our axiom that there is a life after this one, but we do not encourage speculation about its nature. We have no empirical evidence to rely on.
Death is the great enemy – but for some, the great friend. Why is it an enemy? Because life is precious and must be cherished as long as possible. Life is good, and God-given, and even the dying person is deemed fully alive to the final moment. And every advance in medical science which enables us to hold on to life and ward off the attacks of death, is a triumph.
But to some, death is, philosophically, the great friend. That is, they value Olam Haba (the World to Come) more than Olam Hazeh (this world). This, however, is not normative Judaism. The better Jewish view is that an hour of good deeds in this world is better than all the life of the World to Come. Yet, existentially, the person who is suffering unbearably will sometimes yearn for death as friend rather than enemy.
Death is the great moment of aloneness. Franz Rosenzweig in his “Star of Redemption” observes that though most things in life are experienced in company, each one of us dies alone. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) lists reasons why Adam was created alone; we might add to them the notion that man was created alone to show that at the final moment, the human community we know on earth is left behind and we are on our own.
How characteristically Jewish this thought is. What, after all, is the Hebrew word for a funeral? It is levayah, or halvayat hamet – “accompanying the dead”. But what it signifies is not only that we honour the departed by accompanying the remains, but also that we can only go a small part of the way. Then we have to turn around and go back… without the departed.
For the living, that is a searing, tragic moment of aloneness. Nothing is as painful, as brutal, as shockingly realistic as what has been called “unlearning the expected presence of the departed”. The moment when the ways diverge and the dead go their way and the living go theirs, is hard for both of them. When people have loved each other they dream of being together for ever. Nobody wants the bond to be broken. Yet the fact is that no-one can escape death. Nor can anyone organise the moment and circumstances of their death. There is no way of avoiding the summons to give back one’s life – though we can and must cherish every moment of living and hope that God will allow our living to be prolonged and extended.
The nurses at a London hospice report that one of their patients said: “It’s not so much that you lose anything here, but bit by bit you have to give things back. You give back your sight. You give back your hearing. You give back your friends. Then one day you finish by giving back yourself.”
It recalls the famous story of Beruriah and her husband Rabbi Meir. When their two sons died on Shabbat, she did not tell him immediately. Finally, when he insisted on knowing where the sons were, she told him by way of parable. Someone entrusted her with previous jewels, she said, and now sought them back. What should she do? Obviously they had to be returned, said her husband, and he understood what she was telling him (Midrash Mishlei to 31:1).
For the family as well as the dying patient it is a moment of agony. Who wants to welcome sorrow? Yet sorrow, as Morris Adler put it, is the obverse side of love. If you want to avoid sorrow, then you must never dare to love. If you want to love, you risk the sorrow of parting.
This is how Jim Anderson explained it:
The hardest things to say
I love you
To say hello
is to begin to say “I love you”
is to begin to say “goodbye”.
To protect yourself from “goodbye” by never saying “hello” is no answer to anything. Martin Buber said, “All real life is meeting”. You can’t live without “hello”, even though you risk having to say “goodbye”.
So what is bereavement? It is the discovery that we really cannot accompany each other any further, that now each must go their own way, that we can’t walk together any longer. If anything in Judaism symbolises this moment of truth it is when the mourner takes the shovel and throws earth on the coffin in the grave. Leo Jung has written about the brutality of that moment. That is when one knows and can no longer avoid the recognition of what has happened.
All of us eventually learn we cannot any longer walk together with a dear one. But in a spiritual sense, the dear one never dies if the thought of them lives in and with us.
A further important observation is made by Joshua Loth Liebman. He says, “It is the knowledge that our years are limited which makes them so precious.” We must hope, trust, pray and yearn that we will be together tomorrow, but we must appreciate and celebrate each other today.