“When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.”
“How utterly different was the cruel fate of those who perished in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the hijacked planes on September 11. To its everlasting credit, The New York Times in its daily ‘Portraits of Grief’ has been compiling the fragments of eulogy for each individual whose life was so suddenly obliterated. Grief is compounded by the lack of preparation and by the absence of all remains. As I read these personal vignettes of largely young people bursting with zest, in pursuit of dreams and borne aloft by so many relationships, I must constantly remind myself that they are no longer. Nothing is left to mitigate the anguish of their loved ones but memories that need to last a lifetime.”
“Portraits of Grief,” pg 180 (December 29, 2001)
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries
As I write this, it is the anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As I write this, I recall reading earlier this morning that another school shooting has just taken place at a High School in Colorado, with the eighteen-year old shooter having killed himself and his fifteen-year old victim struggling for life in the hospital.
I have prayed for the victims in Newtown and I have grieved with their parents since I am both a parent and grandparent. The very idea of losing a child to a sudden and needless death is horrifying beyond imagination.
Schorsch’s commentary on the death of Jacob paints a portrait of a man who died with difficulty even as he lived. But he was also a man who had the time to prepare for death, to bless his children and grandchildren, and to be surrounded by a comforting family as he breathed his last and was “gathered to his people.”
In Judaism, there is a halakhic requirement to sit shiva or to mourn in solitude and withdrawal from the world for seven days following the death of a loved one. And on the anniversary of the loved one’s death, it is customary to observe yahrzeit by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a candle, and remembering the person who has died.
But these are not my loved ones nor am I Jewish, so what am I to do?
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Donne’s famous poem, which I learned forty years ago, reminds me that anyone’s death diminishes me because I am involved in humanity, because of my humanity and my mortality.
According to Schorsch’s commentary (pp 170-172), second century Jewish sage, Rabbi Meir’s midrash on the Creation account in Genesis was so controversial that it saw limited circulation during his lifetime. His interpretation of Genesis 1:31 where it is declared “And God saw all that he had made, and found it very good,” Rabbi Meir relates the Hebrew word “me’od” which is translated as “very” to “mot,” which is the Hebrew word for “death”.
In Christian doctrine, we believe that God introduced death into the world as a response to the fall of Adam and Eve. According to Rabbi Meir’s midrash…
…God did not inject death into the world later, as a punishment for human sin. Rather, death was part of life, for without its inescapable presence, humankind would never value or use life fully. The beauty of life flowed from its impermanence.
-Schorsch, pg 171
I’m sure this is little comfort to those who are mourning their children in this supposed season of joy. In abstract, we can philosophize that it is our mortality that defines our existence, and the shadow of death cast across our journey of life reminds us that every moment is precious.
But in reality, most people rarely consider their death until something shakes them out of apathy, such as a doctor’s dire report or the murder of a child.
There is a tremendous temptation to either sink into depressive despair or to cry out in anger and pursue the path of vengeance. We want and even need to do something, to respond in some way, either by withdrawal or violent projection, because of the senseless outrage of these deaths.
In the end, neither reaction does much good. The former honors no one and the latter is manipulated by the politicians and the media pundits to achieve their own agendas.
The only thing that makes sense to me, particularly in a universe where I acknowledge a loving, involved, and creative God, is to take the only option that remains…to love those who are left to me here and now, not just because I know they can be taken away at any moment, but because life has to be more than mere existence, pursuit of money, pleasure, and the consumable products in the latest ad campaign on television. If life isn’t the expression of love, especially to those who depend upon us for their every need (even as we all depend on God for our every need), then why were we given life in the first place?
As I write this, I mourn the loss of the young innocents, not just in Connecticut and Colorado, but everywhere, and for every person, because like God, I must be involved in humanity. It is said that when Jacob and the seventy went down into Egypt, God went with them. How He must have grieved knowing just how far down Israel’s children would descend in the following years and decades. It is said that when millions of Jews and other “undesirables” entered the Nazi camps, God entered with them and was imprisoned with them. How He must have grieved as He witnessed each individual death of the six million of His chosen little ones.
The only thing we have to keep us going in the face of death and disaster is our faith in God, that there is something more to life than what we can detect with our five senses, and that there is a greater meaning to it all. When a child dies, even great faith is shaken, for how could a loving God allow such a heinous act to occur?
But where we have faith, God has certainty of perception and knowledge. God knows. He knows the placement of each individual soul in this life and beyond. We live in a universe that is broken and under slow repair. In that universe, death occurs, injustice occurs, tragedy occurs. Tears and grief occur.
I took a few days off of work last week to spend time with my grandson. We played with legos, I made him pancakes, we had “sword fights” in my snowy backyard, we went to the playground and slid down slides covered with melting ice. I dropped him off at pre-school and had the wonderful privilege of picking him up again as he ran toward me grinning and gleefully yelling, “Grandpa!”
I can’t say anything that will comfort the grieving and the dying except that if you still have someone precious in your life who needs you and who loves you, then they are the difference, the hope, and the faith that makes life more than just living day-to-day. This is what God does to open our eyes. This is what God does to open our hearts, to turn stone into beating flesh. This is why we are alive. We live to love.