The Torah of Death

High Holidays 2004
My mother called me when I was working on this sermon and asked me what I was writing. I told her that I wanted to talk about Jewish ideas and rituals surrounding death. Silence. “Mom, are you there?” I asked. “Well, that’s certainly an uplifting subject for the High Holidays,” she responded. My hope and intention is not to depress or frighten anyone by talking about death, yet I know that my mother’s response is not unusual. After all, isn’t this the season of the world’s birth? Why talk about about our least favorite topic in a society that adores youth and vigor? Even the Talmud tells us that we avoid the subject, because we are all vulnerable to the unexplored, and death is the most mysterious of uncharted territories.

Yet, I believe that the subject is important and, despite our aversion and uncertainty, not to be shunned. Bill Moyers, in his recent television series exploring death, calls it the last taboo. Whether we speak of endings, ultimate passage, or last adventure, it is death we’re talking about, and it’s a hard word, especially for baby boomers who have deconstructed and reconstructed adulthood to be an endless summer. Despite our reluctance to grow up, we find ourselves taking arthritis medicine and discovering that magazines like Modern Maturity are talking to us. Old age is not only for our parents and grandparents. The next kaddish is for us, and we are beginning to look at dying with the same intensity and creativity as we looked at our wedding ceremonies and baby namings in what seems only a few years ago.

Despite my mother’s opinion, this morning of Yom Kippur, as we implore God to forgive us by demanding our forgiveness of one another, ourselves, and God, is the perfect time to explore the ideas and practices of our people concerning dying, death, and mourning. Now, as we fast and test our physical limitation, is the time to begin our preparation for the inevitable and irrevocable.

On Yom Kippur we experiment with immortality by not eating, drinking, washing, wearing leather shoes, anointing ourselves with soothing moisturizers, or having sex, because we play at being angels who are not bound by flesh and blood. Who needs bodily pleasure when heaven is so near?

The Torah portions we read weekly in this season are the words of Moses, a dying man who, in knowing that his end is coming, reiterates earlier messages but now with a clarity, strength, and wholeness to the narrative that can only come at the end of the story. Death is the teacher of life, the inevitable conclusion that gives meaning to our lives by reminding us that the day is short, so live! At birth God breathes into our bodies and we live. Breath and spirit are one word, ruah. And God’s name is One, the One who gives and takes life. Life and death are a unit. How we live is how we die. But if life is holy, God’s best gift, why must we die?

Sherwin Nuland, the author of How We Die, is a physician who grew up loving his Judaism in a warm, close family. He explains the need for death: “We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died–in a sense for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life. ”

This is the stuff of philosophy, but it is small comfort when each of us has to accept the loss of a loved one or our own death. When a loved one dies, we are left alone. Bewilderment, paralysis, agony and numbness, guilt and anger, are normal responses. The Kabbalah describes three levels of grief. In the lowest we cry, in the second we are silent, and in the third we sing. How can we be healed so that we can sing? Time alone is not enough. We need ritual. When we are made crazy by grief, we need the vessel of ritual to give us a contained, safe place to express our sorrow and to keep us from the deadness of denial.

God has two names, Elohim and Adonai, that reveal Judaism’s governing principles: reality and possibility, isness and hope. Both principles inform the Jewish vision of death. Elohim is the face of nature, the energy of the universe. The Talmud tells us that it would be fair if stolen seeds did not sprout, if raped women did not become pregnant. But the reality principle is not fair and the world is not moral. Accidents, disease, and death are not moral. They are not judgments of a cruel God nor are they rewards of a mysterious deity. They are the way the natural world pursues its course.

The other name of God is Adonai. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis says, “Adonai moves us to transform the givenness of nature that sometimes weighs heavily upon us. The urging of Adonai calls for transformation, the human response, the ground of moral goodness. When we pray, “Repentence, prayer, and righteousness overcome the evil decree,” we pray for the metamorphic powers of Adonai that help us mold the isness of nature into ideal ends. It is to this God we pray: “Baruch Atah Adonai.” Eloheinu follows Adonai, and Adonai is repeated twice in the Shema. Adonai leads us to face the imperfection and incompleteness of the world. We have obligation to repair the world’s broken vessels. Adonai in the lengthening of life, the healing the sick, and comforting the bereaved. God created the world, yet the world is not divine. Death is Elohim and death and mourning rituals bring Adonai to us, the consolation that make reality bearable and doesn’t break us.

The sovereign principle underlying all Jewish rituals is that every human being is b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. In death we are confronted with the nexus of the material and spiritual realm. As the person we know begins to leave us as the body declines, we stay near, never leaving the dying one. We do not do anything to hasten death. Our law forbids us, for example, to remove the pillow under the dying one on the assumption that certain bird feathers prevent death, nor do we move him or her lest that they may die. But if something is delaying the death, such as a nearby woodchopper making a noise, and this prevents a speedy death, one can stop the woodchopper.

Why do we need such rules? Because we are materialists, and we are tempted to see the dying as the other, the one who isn’t really with us anymore. We’re tempted to move quickly from this place of confusion, pain, and uncertainty to do something. Let’s get on with the burial plans. Yet anyone who still breathes is alive and must not be abandoned. We are commanded to have patience and sit for as long as it takes for the last breath to be drawn. This is why euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide is not permitted, yet if there is great suffering and death is inevitable, it is allowed not to offer artificial means to postpone death.

If it is possible to say the Vidui, or confession, before death, and the Shema, the dying one should be helped to perform this last prayer. In the Vidui, we say, “My God and God of my ancestors, accept my prayer. Do not turn away. Forgive me for all the time I may have disappointed You. I am aware of the wrongs I have committed. May my pain and suffering serve as atonement. Forgive my shortcomings, for against You have I sinned. May I now live with a clear conscience and in accordance with your will. Send a refuah shlemah, a complete healing, to me and to all who suffer.” We ask for healing and we are prepared for death.

The Talmud tells us not to fear death, because it is as easy as taking a hair out of milk. At the moment of death, the principle of Kavod HaMet, respect for the dead, goes into action, and swiftness and simplicity guide us in bringing the spirit home quickly as possible in its return to God. Those present at the moment of death say the very words that most challenge our hearts: Baruch Dayan haEmet, “Blessed is the true judge.” The eyes of the deceased are closed, a candle may be lit, and we may now ask the dead for forgiveness of any harm or discomfort we may have caused them during their lives.

Because of our desire to honor the dead, we regard the body with respect and reverence for being the spirit’s shelter, even when the spirit has left. When a body lies before us, our belief and faith is tested. Our minds whisper, “Is anyone, anything there?” Our rituals counter our rational, material sense. We may look at the lifeless corpse as an object; the one we love is no longer present. Yet our tradition tells us that the way in which we behave towards this body will assist in freeing the soul. As we sat with the dying, now shomrim, guardians, watch the body until taharah, the preparation of the body for burial.

Taharah, the washing of the body, is not for cleanliness but for purification and reverence. Those who wash the body are members of a chevra kadisha, a holy society of people of great merit. It is an honor to be asked to participate, and taharah is done as lovingly and carefully as washing a baby. Men wash men, women wash women. Only the part being bathed is uncovered, and prayers and psalms are sung appropriate for the occasion. The water is warm and the body is caressed. Tradition frowns on dressing the deceased in fine clothing; death is the equalizer. The body is dressed in tachrichin, linen garments that cover every part of the deceased, including the face. It takes hours and when the body is laid in the coffin for immediate burial, we are in the presence of a being, like a newborn, mysterious and belonging to this world and the world beyond. We may bury our dead in their talleisim, the prayer shawl they wore in their highest moments.

Following the principle of respect for the vessel that held the spirit, we traditionally do not cremate, embalm, or view the body before burial. All of us fear helplessness and abandonment. Each of us who participates in the preparation for burial is assured that we too will be treated with such kindness when our death comes. When we help with a burial it is pure hesed, loving kindness, because the one we wash and the one we carry cannot repay or thank us. It is also a double mitzvah because the hesed touches both the living and the dead.

The period between death and burial is called aninut, and it is brief. The desire for a rapid burial comes from a sensitivity to the dead, now helpless on earth. The bereaved is called an onen, and this is a person who, like the deceased, is not fully among the living. Part of us still is connected to the dead, and we are with them. An onen traditionally may not pray, because we cannot praise God when we are angry and broken.

The other reason for this prohibition is that the first responsibility of the onen is to attend to the needs of the deceased, and nothing should interfere with this. Originally, aninut was within 24 hours, but with families no longer living near each other, the time is often extended to allow time for mourners to travel and attend the funeral. Still, we try our best to speed the time for the sake of the deceased. No one wants to be in a refrigerator for a few days. For those who find prayer an indispensable rampart, and in a time when most of the preparation is taken care of by professionals, many feel that if you want to pray for its solace and comfort, you can and should.

The mourners include spouses, father and mother, son and daughter, brother and sister. Before the burial, we stand and have a ribbon or garment torn to represent the tearing of the heart. When we lose a parent, we do the tear ourselves over the heart. For others, we wear the tear on the right.

In Israel, the dead are buried without a coffin to allow the process of dust to dust to occur swiftly. A simple pine box with holes drilled in the bottom is the preferred method for burial outside Israel. The funeral follows the pattern of simplicity and swiftness. No flowers to soften the moment, a eulogy may be said yet it must not be overpraise or under praise. The last words we say come from Job, ” Adonai natan, v’Adonai lakach. Lech, Ki Shelachach Adonai.” Adonai has given, Adonai has taken. Go your way, for God has called you.” We hear the thud of earth on the lowered coffin, and our disbelieving, denying minds and hearts begin to absorb the separation of life and death.

To express the shift of our concern from the dead to the mourner, the community forms two lines to create a corridor of consolation for the mourners.

As they leave the gaping hole in the ground, we say, “Ha makom yinachem etchem btoch sh’ar avlei tzion v’yrushalayim.” May the sheltering God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. The mourners are consoled in knowing that they are not the only ones in the world suffering loss; they are part of a community of mourners sheltered by the community who allow the mourner’s grief to break against them. We attend the mourner home and wash our hands outside the door to remind us that we must leave death behind in order to live. Never underestimate the importance of our presence. A friend told me that when her mother died, she was shattered. Upon returning home, she found her house full of food and friends. She said, “My mother was my first source of food.” By bringing sustenance we feed spirit as well as body.

When we mourn, we sit for seven days on the floor or on low stools. This is shivah, which means seven. We cover the mirrors so that we do not mock those who no longer see a reflection, and we force ourselves to eat a meal prepared by friends and neighbors. Now, like the deceased, we are not left alone in our grief but gently reminded to live. Visitors do not greet us but wait for our cue to know how to be with us. Their eyes and embrace are often enough. If we want to talk about the dead, we will let them know. They will leave without a formal farewell. This is not a social call, after all. After shivah, the mourner returns to the world, no longer the same people as we were before. We sit in a special place in the synagogue, do not enter on Friday night until after the joyful Lecha Dodi is sung, and the congregation greets us with the consoling verse recited after the funeral.

We mourn for thirty days except for a parent, which is a year long period. We do not attend parties during mourning, listen to music, or watch television and go to movies. What I’ve described is tradition and law. Regardless of practice, knowing the tradition is essential for understanding what it means to be a Jew. What can we learn from these rituals?

First, we can learn how to mourn and how to die. We live in a time where there are increasingly fewer funerals, but more memorials and celebrations of life.

A parent buries a child with a few friends and no one knows what to say. Children cremate parents in absentia. We behave this way not because we are without hearts but because we don’t know how to enter the dark night and and we fear no return. We will ourselves not to feel death. Judaism acknowledges the horror of death, defines a way of honoring the dead, while it insists that we live. Mourning is mandated and limited. We must leave our homes after seven days, we must cease mourning after 30 days or a year. We are discouraged even from visiting the cemetery too often. The expression “orgy of grief” carries truth. There is a difference between reverence and worship of the dead, and we must honor the distinction.

We need more than rituals to face death. We need faith, faith in the ebb and flow of things, and faith that however we brought blessing to this life, that blessing lasts forever. The love of my grandmother for me has become my love for my grandchildren. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “To have faith is not to capitulate but to rise to a higher place of thinking. To have faith is not to defy human reason but rather to share divine wisdom.” At the end of his life Heschel accepted his death as a homecoming. He faced his death with song by feeling gratitude for his life. “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.” May we live our lives so full of wonder that we face death as a fair price for the gift of life, and may we see all around us that death is the beginning of new life. We die so that others may live. “