Mortality is Good (Yom Kippur Yizkor, 5775/2014)

God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good.” We’ve now explored that verse, from the first chapter of Genesis, twice during these holidays. On Rosh Hashanah, we saw how Rabbis Chaninah and Pinchas made an anagram of the word m’od, “very,” and heard in the words an optimistic, positive assessment of adam, humanity. Last night, the sixteenth-century biblical commentator Ovadiah Seforno showed us to another understanding, in which the word “very” indicates that the whole of Creation is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

And now it is Yizkor time, and our thoughts turn to family and friends who have died. Can we say, even now, that God sees the fullness of Creation as very good? What of the heaviness in our hearts as we remember a beloved, a parent, or God forbid, a child. Is this, too, “very good?”

A fascinating answer to that question was offered by Rabbi Meir, a second-century Jewish Sage. His thoughts were recorded in Genesis Rabbah, a collection of teachings which is also the source for the optimistic take offered by Pinchas and Chanina. He wrote:

In the copy of Rabbi Meir’s Torah they found this written: “And behold it was very good – and behold death was good”….Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: I was seated on my grandfather’s shoulder going up from his town to Kfar Chanan by way of Beit Shean, and I heard Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, as he sat and lectured, say in the name of Rabbi Meir: “And behold it was very good” – and behold death was good (Bereshit Rabbah 9:5).

It is quite a text. The first surprising thing is that bit about “finding it written in Rabbi Meir’s Torah,” which seems to suggest that Rabbi Meir wrote his observations in the margins of his Torah scroll. Then, the teaching is repeated in story form, with Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman describing the ride on his grandpa’s shoulder, telling us where and when, and from whom, he learned the same teaching. Why repeat the very same lesson, and why with all of that rich detail?

Perhaps the repetition allows the highly unusual observation to sink in. We are surprised, even shocked, to hear that Rabbi Meir put notes in the margins of his Torah scroll, we smile at the picture of Shmuel bar Nachman on his grandfather’s shoulder, and our dwelling in this moment leads to ask: Does Rabbi Meir really mean to say that death is good?

He does. Granted, his interpretation is based on a word play, with m’od, meaning “very” sounding similar to mot, meaning death. Hineh tov m’od. Hineh tov mot. But one doesn’t teach something just because the wordplay is clever. One needs to mean it, first of all. And so we ask, What does Rabbi Meir mean when he says “death is good?”

This is what I think: I think tov mot is Rabbi Meir’s acknowledgment that mortality itself is a gift. Just a few minutes ago, our prayer book described it as “the tax we pay for the privilege of love, thought, creative work — the toll on the bridge of being from which clods of earth and snow-peaked mountains are exempt.” Rabbi Meir was saying the same thing, but he summed it up in two words: tov mot.

It’s not an easy thing to say, an easy thing to accept. We have, many of us anyway, a good deal of fear around death. That fear is the subject of one of the most poignant stories in all of Jewish literature:

Sitting at the bedside of Rabbi Nachman, Rava saw that he was dying.
Rabbi Nachman said to Rava, “Tell the Angel of Death not to trouble me.”
Rava replied, “You can tell him yourself, can’t you?”
Rabbi Nachman answered: “Who is sufficiently important, esteemed, or strong enough to accomplish that?”
So Rava agreed to do so, on the condition that Rabbi Nachman would come back in a dream. When he did show himself, Rava asked him, “Did you suffer any pain?”
Rabbi Nachman replied, “Like removing a hair from a glass of milk. And yet, if the Holy One were to say to me, ‘Go back to that world,’ I would not agree. The fear of death is just too great.”

Even with the benefit of having had the experience of dying, and of knowing that it was gentle, Rabbi Nachman is unwilling to go through it again. How much the more so is our fear understandable, our fear of something so completely unknown?

A recent essay by Dartmouth physicist and philosopher Marcelo Gleiser explores what he calls “soft immortality,” the possibility that science and medicine will succeed in turning the aging process itself into a treatable pathology. Oh, we’ll still be susceptible to death by accident, but as degenerative illnesses, cancers, and aging itself become “manageable,” our life spans, which have already grown tremendously in recent decades, could well push out much further, and our years will have better quality, as well.

Gleiser considers the possibility that “immortality could be quite boring, a life without a sense of pace.” Furthermore, he writes, “an immortal being would be an aberration, opposite to everything that we see around us, a world where transformation and decay is the rule.” In other words, we are lucky to be “prisoners of the years,” as the prayer book has it, for our mortality is “the room of discipline in which we, driven by the urgency of time, create.”

How does a person leave behind fear and embrace mortality as a gift, as “good.” For some, it is the gentle work of a lifetime. Rabbi Meir’s experience was likely different. He lived during a period of brutal persecution, and saw the death of colleagues at the hands of the Romans. Furthermore,

the story is told of a Saturday afternoon when Rabbi Meir came home from the house of study to find his wife, Bruriah, with a question.
“Meir, some time ago I took possession of two precious jewels, holding them in trust for their owner. He came for them just before Shabbat began, but I wasn’t sure whether or not to return them. What is the proper thing to do?”
Meir responded, “Bruriah, of course you must return them. They were only deposited with you, and belong to their rightful owner.”
With that, Bruriah took Meir by the hand and led him to the room in which his two sons’ bodies were laid out beneath white sheets.
“These are the jewels, my husband.”
And Meir understood, and Meir proclaimed: “adonai natan vadonai lakach; yehi shem adonai mevorach. God has given, and God has taken away; blessed be God’s Name.”

Rabbi Meir, with the help of his wise partner, came to a place of acceptance. All we are and all we have is but a loan. I would like to think that it was around his boys’ first  yahrzeits that he took up his quill and wrote in the margins of his sefer torah, hineh tov mot.

In a moment, we’ll sing and then read Psalm 23, which ends “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” As we do, consider this: the phrase translated “forever” in that psalm is not the one commonly used to denote eternity, l’olam va’ed. It is l’orech yamim, which actually means “for many days.” Not forever. But for a good while. And that is enough.

We cannot know what it was like to die, nor can we know precisely what’s become of those whom we remember. But we can hope for this: that the people whose memories fill our hearts and minds in this sacred moment might be among our very greatest teachers, and not only because of how the lived. That, of course, but also this: May the very fact of their deaths help us to live with purpose, driven by the passing years to love better, to work more diligently, to build more meaningful lives. In this way can we say, with Rabbi Meir, hineh tov mot. Mortality is a gift, and a blessing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>