A Life That Outlives You


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:10 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 19:1-22:1
Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33
Havdalah: 9:19 p.m.

Look up the word “gaudy” in a dictionary and you will find that it means “garish, showy, vulgarly colorful,” from the Latin, gaudere  “to rejoice.” Citizens of Barcelona may be forgiven for imagining that it comes from the name of their most famous architectural genius, Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), whose perfectly outrageous riot of color fairly fills the city.

In 1883, Gaudí began work on his most famous creation, the Basilica of the Holy Family, a structure that towers high above Barcelona and is not yet complete. According to some estimates, it will not be finished until 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death, making this an edifice with some six generations of workers. The construction budget for 2009 alone — the nearest year available — was 18 million Euros.

Gaudí, we may imagine, died happily, knowing his master plan would continue for at least a century. He would not make it to the promised land of the cathedral’s completion, but others, he knew, would pick up where he left off.

This idea of a project that much outlives its originator goes back to the Bible, particularly Moses, who dies knowing that Joshua will take over for him. But it applies to Aaron as well — it is a well-rehearsed Jewish ideal. The Malbim puts it beautifully when he notes that the description of Aaron’s death seems to get things in reverse order: “Aaron shall be gathered to his ancestors and die there,” says the text [Numbers 20:25], whereas it ought to have him dying first and only afterward being gathered to his kin. But, explains the Malbim, Aaron’s soul actually passed over to its afterlife before his body perished because he was so anxious to leave his earthly life behind — not through weariness, but because he knew he had fulfilled his life’s purpose, which would be carried forward by his descendants.

Moses follows him in this regard, and although we know less of the circumstances surrounding the death of Miriam, we should imagine her dying the same way, since our Rabbis give her pride of place in this sedra as well, allotting to her (as to Aaron and Moses) 30 days of mourning, not just the usual seven.

It is the Bible, then, that establishes the concept of a life’s project that we merely inaugurate and then pass along to our spiritual heirs for further work after we are gone. The Rabbis add to the equation by picturing us dying satisfactorily — by a kiss from God, in fact — because we have intuited our life’s task as something greater than we could complete all on our own, leaving us free to rejoice in merely beginning it.

But the Bible and the Rabbis part company with Gaudí in the nature of the human project. Gaudí defined his life’s work by a monumental church that would tower high into the heavens to declare the greater glory of God. Remember Abraham Joshua Heschel, however, who famously described Shabbat as a cathedral in time because of the noticeable lack of Jewish cathedrals in space. It is not that Jews do not value fine art and beautiful architecture; but rabbinic aesthetics have never sought to demonstrate Jewish superiority by a physical presence that dwarfs everything else in sight. Jewish tradition is more apt to see that kind of edifice as a Tower of Babel.

Miriam’s project was water: she is remembered for providing a life-giving well for those in thirst of life. The project to which Moses gave his life was freedom, the Exodus itself. And Aaron is recalled for his efforts to establish peace where there was strife. These are the Jewish projects that outlive us: water for the thirsty, freedom for the enslaved; and a society that lives in peace.

The idea of a religion that soars head and shoulders above all others is painfully medieval, a throwback in time to a day when a triumphant Church had replaced the Roman Empire as the would-be ruler of the world. Most Christians today have abandoned that model of religious imperialism — and good riddance to it. By contrast, the spiritual ideals of life-giving water, freedom and peace remain forever.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College in New York. He is the author of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing).