Cheating Death


According to a legend in the Talmud, when the ancient sage Joshua ben Levi was about to die, the Angel of Death appeared to him (Berakhot 51a). “Before you kill me,” said Rabbi Joshua, “show me my place in Paradise.” It was a strange request, but the Angel of Death agreed. Rabbi Joshua further demanded that he be allowed to hold the Angel’s knife while they traveled together, and the Angel consented to this as well.

True to the Angel’s word, they soon reached Paradise. However, as soon as they were back in the land of the living, Rabbi Joshua ran away, refusing to return the Grim Reaper’s knife. Only when a Divine voice demanded its return did Rabbi Joshua consent. “Return the thing to him,” the voice instructed Rabbi Joshua, “for he needs it to use on other mortals.”

The rabbis of the Talmud believed that when faced with seeming inevitabilities such as death, there is always something we can do. This is what it means to live with free will. Sooner or later, death will claim us all, even Rabbi Joshua–but, until the very moment it happens, we can still live life to the fullest. Even if that means fleeing from the Angel of Death himself.

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