An Understanding Of Death


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:13 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 19:1-22:1; 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Havdalah: 9:13 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.

The Talmud was compiled some 1,500 years ago, but when it comes to dying, not much has changed. Life expectancy has risen, but only on average, and no one dies “on average.” We hope it will be painless, but as poet Dylan Thomas urges his dying father, “Do not go gentle into that good night!” No worry there! “We rarely do,” said Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, who tried to give his patients an easy death, but knew he often failed. “I have rarely seen much dignity in the process by which we die,” he concluded in his book “How We Die.” Dr. Nuland died in March of prostate cancer at the age of 83.

What advice does the Talmud have for how we die?

“Normal” death, says the Talmud, occurs in old age, providing ample time to say good-bye and order our affairs. But some people die young, often instantly (“mitah chatufah,” a life “snatched away”), sometimes in stages (“mitah d’chuyah,” death “pushed off,” however briefly). The Rabbis know better than to find transcendent meaning in such matters. “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 were rewarded by longevity, recognizing, however, that it is not. We need 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. … 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.”

Lesson No. 2. With luck, we will die peacefully, welcoming release from this life into a blissful state of being we cannot imagine.

In any event, our death will impact others. 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’s water 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.

Our tradition insists, however, that “the memory of the righteous is a blessing” (“Zecher tzaddik livracha”).

So lesson No. 4: When the gaping hole recedes, we discover the blessing of those who have died. At their best, they become models of a life well led, and in any case, it dawns on us how much we should live as the model we wish to leave behind.

With luck (mazal), then, we will die of old age — willingly, even, with a kiss from God. In any case, we can live with full intent to be a blessing, even after we are gone. For a while, our loved ones may experience the emptiness of our absence, but with time, there can emerge one last enormous gift that we leave behind: our own lives that they can emulate; and our deaths as well.

We, and they, can grasp the fact that the enemy is not death but life run down to the point of our bodily functions failing. Death itself is a release from the world we cannot have any more; a gateway to another stage of being that our tradition describes as beyond, and incomparably 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.