September 23, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

Zaide lay dying. His pulse was thready, his breathing was labored, the children and grandchildren stood around his bed waiting for the end. He’d been fading in and out of consciousness all afternoon. And now, as the time for departure drew near, a wonderful smell wafted upstairs from kitchen below. Zaide’s eyes opened, and smile crept across his tired face.

“I smell your Bubbie’s rogelach baking!” he said weakly. “What a smell! Those are the most delicious rogelach in the world. Oy, what I would give for one last taste… Please, go and get me one to eat, and then I can die happy…”

A grandson was quickly dispatched to the kitchen; after a few minutes he returned empty-handed.

“What’s wrong?” Zaide asked feebly. “Where’s the rogelach?”

And the grandson answered, “Bubbie says they’re for the shiva…”

Gallows humor; the need to laugh, if just a little bit, in the face of death, is essential. As someone once said, this world is a very tough place; you’re lucky if you can get out of it alive. Or, as Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to be immortal—I just want to live forever.” In the face of this, we sometimes try to reduce the inevitable end to a punch line.

There is a story about Sol, an old man, in the hospital, near death. He had always been a religious man, and his family called the rabbi to be with them at this moment.

As the rabbi stood next to the bed, Sol’s condition appeared to deteriorate suddenly, and he motioned frantically for something to write on. The rabbi lovingly handed him a pen and piece of paper, and Sol used his last bit of energy to scribble a note; then he died.

The rabbi thought it best not to look at the note at that tragic time, so he placed the note in his jacket pocket.

At the funeral, as he was finishing the service, he realized that he was wearing the same jacket he wore when Sol died. He reached into his pocket and pulled out Sol’s note.

“Sol handed me a note just before he died. I haven’t looked at it yet, but knowing Sol I’m sure there’s a word of inspiration there for us all.”

He opened the note and read “Rabbi, you’re standing on my oxygen tube!”

Or then there is the fact that in this life there is always death and taxes; but at least death doesn’t get worse every year.

It’s not clear that death is actually funny; but, like most things that make us uncomfortable, we find that laughter eases the distress. And so, sometimes, in the face of the unpleasant fact that death is certainly a part of life, we reduce the inevitable passing into a punch line.

In truth, it’s a hard thing getting comfortable with the idea that we are all going to die, some day, that mortality is hardwired, part of our original equipment. In one sense, death is simply a part of life. Without death we could never come to appreciate life, feel its beauty, see it for how precious it really is. This is a platitude, but it is also true.

But in another, more obvious sense, death is not really a part of life, but its antithesis. It is the cessation of life, finality, the end. Rabbis and other religious and mystical types spend a lot of time rationalizing that there are values that transcend the grave, that we can be immortalized by means of the memories we leave behind—but the hard, unavoidable truth is that death is a bottom-line fact. Nor, in spite of religious and magical promises to the contrary, do we even know what comes next.

Life after death is a sort of guess, really; no one really knows what happens to us as conscious, sentient entities after we die. No one can tell you with personal certainty where your soul will go, no one has been there and come back and told us. I sometimes teach a class in our Adult Education Academy called “Life after death in Jewish belief”; I especially like teaching it because no one can prove anything I say to be untrue. We simply don’t know.

And so, in the face of this uncertainty and ignorance we jest. Or we struggle.

How are we to face this most unpleasant fact? Why do we die? Why don’t we know why we die?

The truth is, we are always in that state of uncertainty about many things in life; we just don’t admit it. But when we confront death directly we are reminded of the salient truth about our existence: it’s all in God’s hands.

We spend so much of our lives pretending to be in control. We act as though our own actions have ultimate meaning, as though the details and data of our lives change the course of creation. We become embroiled in all of our efforts and activities, ensnared by our own investment in our work, our causes, our hobbies.

But at times of death—and at this time of Yizkor—we may come to realize that this is all a kind of an elaborate fantasy game we play. We pretend that we know all of the answers, that we are running the show. And yet, as becomes clear when we face death, the activity of our life can be the least real part of it.

If we are doing such important stuff, why do we die? We surely don’t know. And ultimately, we don’t even know when we will die.

And so, we have only one way to turn, if we are honest. We must accept that the life we enjoy, the memories we have of those we have loved and lost, has all been a gift—even a loan—from God. What we can appreciate, what we can learn to accept and even to treasure, is that we are blessed with that gift, that loan. If we allow ourselves, we can come to revere it, too. Life we possess, and should treasure. Death we accept, even as we fail to understand it.

As Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford put it, “looking back, we see… that subtle thing that is mirage—that is life. It is the goodness of the years we have lived through, of the old time when we did this or that, when we dwelt here or there… [that we] should have passed through so much, good chance and evil chance, sad hours and joyful, all lived down and swept away… that is life.” {Romance, Conrad and Ford, last paragraph}

Yet here, in this life, there is beauty; here, there is sweetness, and sadness; here, there is mourning and blessing. Here there is even laughter to leaven the loss.

And here, knowing our own mortality, we can take comfort in the knowledge that this is all in God’s hands; all, except for the appreciation of it, and the love and memory we bring to it.

May we bring that appreciation of life, that love and those memories, and even that humor, with us now, as we turn to the Yizkor service.

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225 N. Country Club Road
Tucson, AZ 85716

Phone: 520-327-4501
Fax: 520-327-4504

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