The Jewish Way Of Death


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 8:12 p.m.
Torah Reading: Numbers 19:1-22:1
Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33
Sabbath Ends: 9:21 p.m.

How will I die? What if (anything) happens to me (if there even still is a “me”) next? How will my death impact those I leave behind? The Talmud asks these questions in response to the death of Miriam and Aaron, part of this week’s sedra. 

Compiled some 1,500 years ago, the Talmud can hardly anticipate the death that we will probably know. But so what? What really has changed? Life expectancy has risen, but only on average, and no one dies on average. It has even been said that the death rate never changes: one per person.

However much modern painkillers and enlightened attitudes have improved the act of dying, we all will die, and the specter of not being around any more is as frightening as ever. Does anyone believe we will ever stop fearing our last and final moment on this earth? Medicine addresses none of this. So I turn to the Talmud.

“Normal” death, says the Talmud, occurs at old age, providing ample time to say goodbye and order our affairs. But unaccountably, good people die young, sometimes instantly (mitah chatufah, a life “snatched away”), sometimes within 24 hours (mitah d’chuyah, death “pushed off” briefly). The Rabbis would prefer finding meaning in all this, but they know better. “What difference does it make, whether ‘snatched away’ or ‘pushed off?’” the Tosafot ask.

The Talmud itself reports Rava’s conclusion: “Length of life depends less on merit than on mazal” — “fate” he would have said; we call it “luck.”

Lesson No. 1. We should live as if goodness is rewarded by longevity, recognizing, however, that it is not. What we need is mazal.

What will that final moment be like? We all fear painful death, so the Talmud holds out hope that we will die like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam – with a gentle kiss from God. Centuries later, the Malbim sums this up beautifully:

“Aaron was not killed by the angel of death; he died with a kiss. Rather than being struck down by external causes, his soul gradually extended beyond him, moved by joyful anticipation of being freed from the prison of the body and being allowed to be gathered up into the state of eternal life with God…. That is why instead of saying ‘Aaron died,’ Torah reports, ‘He was gathered to his people,’ meaning that his soul departed the material world in order to return to its ‘people,’ the place, that is, where the souls of all the righteous dwell.”

Lesson No. 2. With luck, we will die the death of the righteous, looking forward to release from this life into a blissful state of being we cannot even imagine.

In any event, our death will impact others. The Torah’s report of Miriam’s death is followed by the incident at Meribah, where the Israelites thirst for water.

Miriam had nurtured her people with a magical well that accompanied them through their wilderness wanderings. With Miriam gone, the well dried up.

Lesson No. 3, then: When loved ones die, we miss their nurturing. The bottomless well of love that they provided becomes a gaping hole within us.

As the story of Meribah follows Miriam’s death, so a similarly significant discussion precedes it: the sacrificial ritual of the red heifer that was said to atone for sin. Its contiguity with Miriam’s demise leads the Talmud to conclude that the death of the righteous provides atonement. Even in their deaths, that is, the people we love provide us with benefits that last long after they are gone.

Final lesson, No. 4, then: As the moment of loss recedes into the past, we discover new blessings that our loved ones left behind. We, too, take heart, knowing that our physical deaths do not exhaust the blessings we leave others. Zekher tzaddik livrakhah — “The memory of the righteous is a blessing.”

If we are fortunate, we will die of old age, with time to prepare and say goodbye. But that depends on luck. Whether “lucky” or not, however, our very lives become blessings that outlast our earthly life. Knowing that, we may be able to confront our deaths more willingly, as if kissed by God.

This model of meeting our death without despair is itself a gift to those we leave behind. When their time to go arrives, they may be able to see, as we did, that death is not the end of our impact upon the earth — and who knows? As for us, it may be just the gateway to another stage of being that our tradition describes as beyond and better than what we now know. 

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.




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