This post was delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October 2019. It was part of a series called Old Challenges Anew. You can listen to an audio recording via the Kol Hadash Podcast.
As long as we have been alive, we have died. Some of the oldest signs of human civilization, of human emotion are graves, bodies buried, often with meaningful objects. We did not simply abandon our deceased to nature; we said goodbye in meaningful ways because those people were meaningful to us.
Just because we have been saying goodbye for thousands of years does not mean it has gotten easier. The old religious strategies: resurrection, ongoing communication, personal immortality, future supernatural reunion; they do not inspire or comfort many of us today. We still have those old human needs: to deal with loss, to face life without our loved one. We remember these losses on special dates, or at special moments, or on any ordinary day when we might have picked up the phone or dropped an email or given a hug to make a loving connection.
This High Holiday season, we have looked back at the Jewish experience as a way to face old problems anew, and there is no problem older than the reality of mortality. Our mythic patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are noted not only for how they live but also for how they mourn their parents and their partners. Abraham buys a cave to bury Sarah. Isaac finds a wife to be comforted after his mother’s death, and joins his estranged brother Ishmael to bury their father. Jacob mourns the loss of his beloved wife Rachel, and Jacob’s sons mourn the loss of their father. Even the Exodus from Egypt does not forget to bring Joseph’s body with them for his final resting place in the Promised Land.
Jewish culture offers many rituals for death and memory. Some may no longer speak to us, like covering mirrors or refusing to bathe for seven days of strict mourning (seven in Hebrew is “sheva”, the origin of Shiva). Others traditions, like remembering a death anniversary at a communal gathering or by lighting a special candle, may still be moving. And some observances have changed in response to the times. In the modern way of death, families sometimes experience the closeness and goodbye process they need in the week or two before the loved one dies, and so they sit shiva for a day or 2 or 3, and that’s enough. It is ironic to sit Shiva (seven) for 2 or 3, but there it is.
In our earliest days, Jews believed in a shadowy afterlife, She’ol, like the Greek Hades. When you died, you went underground and existed in a ghostly limbo. Ecclesiastes chapter 9 summed it up and also gave recommendations:
There is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good, to the clean, to the unclean, to him who sacrifices, and to him who doesn’t sacrifice. As is the good, so is the sinner; he who takes an oath, as he who fears an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one event to all….. Go your way—eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; …. Let your garments be always white, and don’t let your head lack oil. Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your life of vanity, which he has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity, for that is your portion in life, and in your labor in which you labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor plan, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, where you are going.
Make the most of this life, because this is the only life worth calling life. To be honest, this is still somewhat depressing. There’s a story that the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was once asked on a talk show, “Well, if you don’t believe in heaven, what happens after you die?” She answered, “You rot!” This may be strictly true, but there are certainly better answers that are more compassionate and more responsive to what we really need.
By the end of the Biblical period, this stoic Jewish resignation to fate was not enough. The paradox of Biblical promises of divine reward and the reality of religious persecution led to a new idea – an afterlife to guarantee that the religiously righteous would truly be rewarded. Rabbinic Judaism explicitly accepts a world to come and a resurrection of the dead in order to meet human needs: the need for justice, the need for more than a difficult life that, 2000 years ago, was often nasty, brutish and short. We may praise their hope, but we reject their rejection of the limits and the importance of this world and this life, and the reality of mortality.
Today, after centuries of human effort, this life is often good and long (though not always long enough). Sometimes death is longer too. A long decline before the end is different from a sudden loss, which is different from cognitive decline before physical problems, which is different from physical decline while mentally sharp. One week in hospice is very different from 3 months. There IS no one way to say goodbye, to prescribe feelings, to set a term on mourning rituals that will answer every death journey. The most important discovery for mourning in the modern era is that we have a right to our own feelings, our own beliefs, our own reactions to life’s realities in all their diversity and complexity.
These are our needs to face the reality of mortality in the 21st Century: to say goodbye in meaningful ways, to enjoy this life while accepting that it will end, to be comforted closely by family and friends for more than one day but not forever, to create a space for memory in years to come, to know that our lives made a difference and that we will be remembered.
Why do we remember loved ones specifically at Yom Kippur? Why is a memorial service the end of our New Year’s observance (call it Yizkor – He will remember or as we say Nizkor – we will remember)? “Because the Rabbi said so” is not enough, sometimes to my chagrin! The leaves are changing and falling, the weather is turning colder, the turning of a calendar page reminds us of the passage of time, the holiday table reminds us of empty chairs that were once filled with love. Blu Greenberg writes movingly about the needs that Jewish traditions can meet, if we let them. Mortality is an old human problem that will never go away. Confronting the reality of mortality is a human task that will always be part of the human condition. (cited in A Women’s Torah Commentary).
At times, devout members of religions that affirm an afterlife are tempted to say that the deceased is “in a better place — living a better life in a better world”; or they are tempted to suggest that there must be some sin or error or judgment that has brought this fate upon the victim. Such persons cannot tolerate the thought that what has happened is unjustified, for it violates their deepest principles about good and evil, reward and punishment. They need somehow to internally rationalize and justify a reality in order to bring the world back to proper equilibrium.
The Jewish laws of bereavement, so exquisitely tuned to the needs of the mourners, stipulate that the shiva visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks. I had always thought that the point of that precept was to ensure that the conversation would flow to the place the mourner needs it to reach. But I now understand that the halachah [law] enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a different function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy. Sometimes the deepest response of love is to be silent.