Tag Archives: dying

Past and Future Holy

There is a graphic example of this at the beginning of the book of Job. In a series of blows, Job loses everything: his flocks, his herds, his children. Yet his faith remains intact. Satan then proposes subjecting Job to an even greater trial, covering his body with sores (Job 1-2). The logic of this seems absurd. How can a skin disease be a greater trial of faith than losing your children? It isn’t. But what the book is saying is that when your body is afflicted, it can be hard, even impossible, to focus on spirituality. This has nothing to do with ultimate truth and everything to do with the human mind. As Maimonides said, you cannot give your mind to meditating on truth when you are hungry or thirsty, homeless or sick (Guide for the Perplexed 3:27).

-Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks
“Eternity and Mortality”
Commentary on Torah Portion Emor (Leviticus 21-24)

Once I would have believed that but now I’m not so sure. I think that when you are sick, you can and in fact, you must consider, ponder, and meditate upon the Spirit and the ultimate truth, because in the process of dying, you are preparing to meet that truth.

Let me explain.

Last night, as you read this, I renewed my relationship with an old friend. I don’t have his permission to discuss the details here, so I must be deliberately vague. But he’s sick. He’s quite ill. We haven’t spoken in several years, even though he lives very close to me. When I heard that he was ill, I asked a mutual friend if he would like to visit this person with me. Our mutual friend lives in another state but was in town visiting relatives.

So for several hours on Sunday afternoon and going into Sunday night, our mutual friend, me, my friend who is ill and his wife sat in their living room and visited. We talked about many things including what we have been doing with our lives, where we’re living and working, and what else we’ve been doing, and movies we’ve seen, and trivia and science and families.

And we talked about doctors and illness and exams and families and trying to make plans when you know the future won’t be traveling as far ahead of you as you once thought it might.

Have you ever wondered about how God works? I don’t know either, but occasionally, God lets you see how He plays “connect the dots.”

My daughter “coincidentally” ran into the ill gentleman’s wife and one of his daughters in the same store in two separate events on the same day. That’s when my daughter found out that my friend was ill. Then my daughter told my wife. Then my wife and daughter told me. Then my wife said that maybe some other old friends and I should visit this friend. So I contacted a couple of old friends. Only one replied and he lives in another state. But the other state friend was coming into town to spend Thanksgiving with is family who lives locally, so I asked him to let me know when we could get together.

And so he called me on Sunday in the early afternoon and we made plans.

And we got together and drove over to our friend’s place.

And that’s when we got to talking about all kinds of things, especially the stuff no one likes to talk about but that will happen to each and every one of us.

I wonder if that’s why we don’t talk about getting sick and about dying?

Because it will happen to every one of us.

Whether we want it to or not.

Whether we’re rich or poor or black or white or any other color or where we live or anything else about us.

And whether or not we believe in God, we’re all still going to die.

And then we’ll know.

I can’t say this from personal experience (yet), but when you know you’re going to die, not in some distant, hypothetical future, but in a more or less predictable time frame, and you have a relationship with God, assuming the relationship with God survives the terminal news, you start thinking about Him a lot.

I wonder if He starts thinking about you more, too?

That’s probably a stupid question since God is infinite and so are His thoughts, but as I was sitting there talking and listening, I was thinking about God and I was wondering if He was thinking a lot more about my friend, too.

I hope so.

PrayerI know that I want and probably need a lot of attention from God. Just read my blog for a few days and you’ll figure out why. But I’m not so self-absorbed that I don’t realize there are a lot of other people who need God’s attention much more than I do. I know God’s resources are limitless, but if they weren’t and if each of us only got so much from God, then I’d ask God to take some of mine and give it to my friend. He needs more attention right now. So does his wife. So does the rest of his family.

I don’t have a lot to give that’s really valuable in a practical sense. I’m not a good handyman. I’m a lousy plumber and a worse carpenter. I barely know a car’s battery from its distributor cap, and electrical wiring is a complete mystery.

But I do have time. And I do have attention. And I can listen. I can talk, too. I can even read out loud.

And I can pray. I can visit. I can have a discussion with another person. So I have a few things to give.

I’ve been pondering about church and church attendance and community and having conversations with like-minded Christians.

Have you ever wondered about how God works? I don’t know either, but maybe He works just like He worked on Sunday afternoon, re-creating an old friendship and building a new one.

Good morning God. I gratefully thank you, living and existing King, for returning my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is your faithfulness. Thank you for making all things holy, including this past Sunday afternoon and past and future friendships.

The holy is the point at which heaven and earth meet, where, by intense focus and a complete absence of earthly concerns, we open up space and time to the sensed presence of God who is beyond space and time. It is an intimation of eternity in the midst of life, allowing us at our holiest moments to feel part of something that does not die. The holy is the space within which we redeem our existence from mere contingency and know that we are held within the “everlasting arms” (Deut. 33: 27) of God.

Hope in Hopelessness

Last week at the Western Wall, I asked an elderly man to put on tefillin. He strongly refused.

I asked him, “When was the last time you put on tefillin?”

He smiled and proudly said, “72 years ago!” He held out his arm to show me the fading tattooed numbers. “1938,” he said. “It was the day of Kristallnacht. Do you know what Kristallnacht is?”

“Of course I do,” I told him.

“Two hundred and sixty-seven synagogues were burned down in one night. They burned down our synagogue, too. My tefillin were burnt up, and I have never put them on again,” he said.

“I have a friend who was in the camps, too,” I quickly said, “and he not only puts on tefillin today, but he even put them onto others inside the camp! Do you want to hear how he got tefillin into the camp?”

“Yes,” he said strongly. “How did he get them in there?”

-Gutman Locks
“Tefillin After 72 Years”
Stories of the Holocaust series

I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to experience the horrors of the Holocaust. Like many Americans, I live a relatively comfortable life. I don’t really know what it’s like to go without adequate food, shelter, or clothing. I’ve been in the hospital before, but remain fairly healthy. I was once beaten by several men during a riot when I was 16 and spent some time recovering, but I was home and eventually after over a year, I began to let myself feel safe again. In short, I’ve faced a certain number of challenges over my lifetime, but none have been overly difficult.

I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to experience the horrors of the Holocaust.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a wife who is struggling with cancer and who may die.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be the father of terminally ill child.

Frankly, I don’t want to imagine, let alone have to actually face such hideous tragedies in life. I don’t know how people do it and, I’m ashamed to say, I don’t even know how people of faith do it.

Where do you find hope in hopelessness? It’s one thing to say “I rely on my God for my strength,” and it’s another thing to actually live it out, one day at a time, one horrible, agonizing minute at a time. What can you do when someone delivers the terrible news and your courage melts like a plastic sandwich bag in the face of an inferno? What do you do when you’re a young, teenage boy and you and your mates are being herded into the gas chambers by the Nazis and you have only minutes to live?

“He began his story. The Nazis had come to the ghetto and grabbed 137 young boys. He told me that only five of them survived. Only five.

“He was thirteen and a half years old. He was wearing the high boots that his father had bought him, and when he saw them coming, he stuffed his tefillin into one boot and his prayerbook in the other.

“They pushed the boys into a cattle car and drove them to the death camp, not far from the ghetto. When the train stopped, they slid open the side of the cattle car and immediately began pushing them toward the open door of the gas chamber. The boys were frightened and cried out. They asked Laibel, ‘What should we do?’ He told them, ‘We’re going to stand in rows five across, and we’re going to march right into that gas chamber singing a song of faith, the “Ani Maamin.”’ And they did just that. They stood in rows five across, and started singing and marching right into the chamber.

“The guards became so confused that they did not know what to do. They screamed, ‘You can’t do that! No one has ever done such a thing before. Stop it! Stop it at once! Here! Go over there to the showers instead!’

“They pushed them over to the showers, and forced them to undress and throw their clothing into a pile in the middle of the floor. They made them empty their shoes, and the tefillin and prayerbook fell out onto the pile.

“After the shower, when they were dressed in camp clothes and were being pushed out, past the pile of their clothes, Laibel saw his tefillin and prayerbook lying there. He wanted so badly to run and pick them up, but terrifying guards were watching. He said to the boys, ‘I did something for you, so now you do something for me.’

“‘Whatever you want,’ they said. ‘You saved our lives.’

“He said, ‘When I give the signal, start a fight and scream out loud. Okay . . . now!’ The boys started to fight and scream. The guards ran over and tried to pull them apart, but they wouldn’t stop fighting. In the confusion, he ran over and grabbed his tefillin and prayerbook, and hid them under his arms.

Laibel not only managed to retrieve his tefillin but he wore them (clandestinely) in the camp and helped other Jews wear them, too. In the story commemorating his courage, we discover him as an old man today helping men wear tefillin at the Kotel.

And he looked me in the eye and said, ‘And I put tefillin on other men, too.’ I started to cry, and I kissed him on his yarmulke.

“The day after Laibel told me his story, there was a soldier at the Western Wall who wouldn’t put on tefillin. No matter what I said, he simply refused. Then I told him Laibel’s story, and he quickly said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’

“And you can do it, too,” I said to the elderly gentleman who hadn’t donned tefillin in 72 years, as I gently slid the tefillin I was holding onto his arm. He said the blessing and started to cry. We said the Shema, and he prayed for his family. He began to smile even while the tears were streaming down his face. A crowd gathered around and congratulated him on overcoming all those years of rejection.

You do not always succeed, but you always have to try.

If there has ever been a hopeless place on earth, it was in the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. Even those who were not immediately killed expected to die a lingering and torturous death. Even those who survived and who were liberated didn’t expect to live any sort of “normal” Jewish life again. Who could after seeing what they saw and experiencing what they lived through? Even after more than seven decades, Holocaust survivors are suffering delayed post-traumatic stress disorder. The statement is so obvious, it’s almost laughable to report it in the media. Of course they’re suffering after seventy years? Who wouldn’t?

But after over seventy years, some have turned suffering and hopelessness into hope, not just for themselves but for each other. Laibel turns hopelessness into hope every time he helps another Jewish man don tefillin and pray at the Kotel. A Jewish man who hadn’t worn tefillin in seventy-two years because of the nightmare of Kristallnacht put on tefillin again because of Laibel’s inspiration, “said the blessing and started to cry.”

While most of us have never faced such horrendous, nightmarish, ghastly experiences as those of Holocaust survivors, as those who are battling desperately invasive cancer, as those who are anxiously trying to comfort a dying child, we still know the world is filled with hopelessness and despair. All of us face some sort of problem, some sort of challenge, something that makes us want to give up our fight to move forward or maybe even the fight to live.

I have no magic to give you. I have no secret formula with which you can overcome your hardships or worries or fears or tears. I can say “rely on God” but for even those men and women who do rely on Him with an almost superhuman faith and courage, the battle is hard and surrender to the darkness is a constant companion.

But amazingly there is still hope. Laibel must be well over eighty years old and for him, hope is helping just one more man put on tefillin, maybe for the first time in decades, and speak words of blessing to God. Hope is saying, “I love you” to a dying little boy. Hope is continuing to pray for your spouse, even though multiple organs are compromised by cancer and years of radiation and chemotherapy haven’t put the demon back in the bottle.

Hope is in the tears you cry. Hope is in your screams of anguish. Hope is being able to go on when life is impossible. Hope is a man learning how to pray again while crying after seventy-two years.

Hope is the faint light of a tiny candle holding the encroaching abyss at bay.

Hope is God.