On Bob Levin's Seventh Yahrzeit: Yom Kippur's Coming
October 6, 2016
In a talmudic story a woman asks her rabbi husband how he feels about his impending death. The rabbi answers: "I have been preparing for this my entire life."
This idea of spending my life preparing for death I once thought ridiculous. Why would anyone prepare his entire life to die when there is so much to live for?
But the rabbi didn't say he spent his life thinking about dying. He said, "I have been preparing for this my entire life." In my youth, I misunderstood his intent because I understood neither death nor life. Tragically, the ways in which we are handling death demonstrate how we are demeaning and desanctifying life itself. But you and I know better. We know how precious life truly is.
I had a favorite uncle. He was always out of money unless he hit a number, but he loved life and was the most outrageous of my dad's 6 siblings. Contrary to his typical character, one day he hesitantly walked over the threshold into our house, shoulders slightly forward rather than back in his normal, robust, life confronting pose, with a look of utter bewilderment and sadness on his face. I sensed that something tragic had happened, perhaps beyond his understanding. Although I was around ten at the time, his look penetrated so deeply that I have remembered what he said all of these years. It was open ended, like the rabbi's wife's question: His employer's son had killed himself. Uncle Sam said with deep mystery, "Why would he do that? He had so much to live for." I sensed the abyss of horror teeming below my uncles words, along with the sorrow and lack of understanding, as though my uncle's fundamental truth in the universe had been denied: life, with all of its pain, nonetheless paints sunrises and sunsets daily. It's watching the ponies, hitting a number, and falling in love. His inability to fully comprehend overwhelmed the words and penetrated far beyond their simplicity, because he loved life itself. "He had so much to live for," he said. My uncle had suffered plenty. But choosing death was incomprehensible. Indeed, we all have so much to live for. But to know that we must pass through the Straits of Sorrow and the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
In Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, the lead character, Emily, died after birthing her third child, an act of ultimate love, unwillingly relinquishing a loving husband and family. From the grave she proclaims that people just don't understand how precious life is. It's true. We all watch young people frivol away their youth. I remember stopping doing nightly pushups because every night I was able to do an additional 2 to 5, and the progress just seemed infinite. I didn't want to have the burden of doing 100 pushups nightly, so I stopped altogether. I scorned and disregarded the vitality of youth. Which is what led George Bernard Shaw to quip, "Youth is wasted on the young." "We would use it better" he implies. But we didn't. No generation ever does.
Now we grow older. The Straits of Sorrow and the Valley of the Shadow are all too familiar. Unwittingly perhaps, we spend out lives unconsciously preparing for death, just as the rabbi said to his wife. Because, like Emily, we have tasted death and at least partially appreciate what loving means to us. No, we don't penetrate to the core, because I don't know that we could endure the suffering of either pure love or boundless loss. The psyche limits how much we allow ourselves to suffer. The Narrator in Our Town says that only saints and poets experience some of the beauty of life, and not even they completely.
Due to our suffering we have become eminently aware that there are tastes that we took for granted; looks in the eyes of others that we allowed to pass unremarked; the sparkling diamond of caring deeply and unguardedly. We learned too well to reign in and control our emotions. In the moment of Kacy's diagnosis of a brain tumor several years ago (completely healed now), as a flood of love overwhelmed me, I knew, if only for a few moments, how completely loving infuses our marrow, oxygenating our tiniest corpuscles. After a threat to life or a death, we know how disruptive and confusing loss of a true love is. It disorients and uproots our world, a hurricane storming about in the soul. Loss boggles the mind and forces us to question our identities, the true meaning of tying our lives to others in a cobweb of connectivity.
Most of us are products of rationalist education. We think linearly, from logical point to logical point. And so we have lost poetry, and stifle emotion, and are losing the depth of loving that is neither logical nor linear, but compelling, textured, beguiling and intertwining.
Death chooses its own time. Once we absolutely demonstrated our respect for death by adjusting our time to its reality. People dropped everything when someone died. They scheduled the funeral and flew hundreds or thousands of miles if need be to be there in a day or two to honor the dead. Funerals demonstrated the utter ineffability of living, the power Emily and Thorton Wilder saw clearly. All else ceased when a death occurred, because beyond grieving the deceased we were paying homage to life itself.
But increasingly funerals are scheduled for convenience, as though the timebound schedule of material living supercedes the spirituality of reverence for death. Awe when confronted by death unveils the respect we hold for the vitality in life. The mystery encapsulated in the crushing reality and finality of death is being relinquished to meetings that we believe are so important they cannot be rescheduled. We rationally figure it out in our heads: "Sorry mom, just have to get this meeting in. We'll put you on ice; you'll never know and won't care." The haunting mystery of life must be managed, crammed onto a procrustean bed of time in our lives. We'll give this death thing just so much formal time. Not even shiva anymore. Maybe a couple of days. And inexplicably, ever so slowly, the holiness of life slips away, like ice melting through our fingers. What hubris, believing even as it is disproven by death and prolonged private mourning that we can encompass the meaning of life in our petty minds. Poetry is too much trouble now because the capillaried mystery of life can be denied by the reductionism of logic. Instead of homage for life we watch so-called reality shows pretending they somehow capture life in all its wondrous complexity. Reality shows conceal reality rather than displaying it. When we desanctify death we admit that there is nothing that cannot be simplified into nothingness. Desanctifying death, life becomes absurd and meaningless, and we teeter at the edge of the abyss. That's what my uncle feared in his despair at his friend's son's suicide. That's what the rabbi meant when he said he prepared his entire life for this moment.
But you and I know differently. Death confronts us with Ultimate Reality. Two daughters this year told me that their mothers told them "I love you," for the first time in their lives when the daughters were caring for them in dying. Why? Death forces reality upon us; it overtakes us like a fearsome storm in the night, demanding our attention even as it grasps ahold of our breathing. You and I have been there. Dying and loss are the ultimate Reality Show, ordering our priorities, or at least shaking them up until we question whether we previously understood life at all.
In our linear thinking that places our puny minds at the center of reality, as if we understood anything to its core, many reject ritual as meaningless routine. But ritual is poetry, attempting to describe if not capture ultimacy in some manageable series of actions and words. We admit our utter ignorance of life's meaning in the face of death, yet we know that we must make meaning when confronted with such holiness and mystery. Death rituals, like Yizkor commemoration on the holiest day of the Jewish year, attempt to capture that which cannot be put into words. According to Alan Wolfeldt, traditional death rituals help us do 6 things: (Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies, p. 56)
Acknowledge the reality of death;
Move toward the pain of loss;
Remember the person who has died;
Develop a new self-identity for the mourner in the absence of his or her beloved
Search for meaning in these new circumstances or life itself
Receive ongoing support from others
All of these tasks trip us up. They are difficult for the human mind to grasp. And so we require rituals like shiva to make them real in our lives.
Another trend is to not even schedule a funeral or memorial service, or to push it off for months. The dying sometimes claim they don't want to cause the family trouble, as if the trouble were the commemoration and celebration of life rather than the death, loss and reconfiguration of reality. Meaningful and timely ritual enables us to grasp and make sense of the incomprehensible.
We attend Yizkor worship on Yom Kippur for complex reasons. To remember for sure. But to remember what? The voice of the one we loved? The events that caused the disruption in our lives and changed reality as we knew it? The good times we shared? Who we are in comparison with who we once were? To bring meaning to the utterly incomprehensible event? To prepare ourselves to walk the same road? They were right here? Where are they now? And where will we be?
Recently I gave a eulogy and after the funeral two writers stopped me in the parking lot. "We love to attend Jewish funerals," they said smiling, "They are so much more meaningful than the others we attend." I understand that. At Jewish funerals we discuss the person who has died, and describe the meaning the life of our beloved. It's important to discuss, and not just for days or weeks, but forever. Discussing, we make real what was once so apparent but unstated, the purpose of a person's life. No one we have ever loved is lost to us. No one whose life we shared can disappear entirely. The only question is the meaning we will give to that life. Will we continue to discuss the person, to include those memories in our families and among our friends, or will this become a private pain that we suffer alone? We are here proclaiming that loss ties our lives together. Death and loss are the common inheritance of all humanity. We all walk the path to the grave. And it is that knowledge that makes advanced age the sweetest time in life. We know through experience the meaning of loss. We know the meaning of suffering. We have transversed the Straits of Sorrow and the Valley of the Shadow of Death and emerged on the far side triumphant but wounded. Each moment of life is sweeter because we, unlike the young, now own and embrace the capacity to savor every moment. I lived in a hurry. Now I take my time, not just because my gait has slowed or I am retired, but because each precious moment winks alluringly at me coaxing me to suck it's juice as though each second were honeysuckle on the vine. I walk sniffing its alluring frangrance, knowing that exceptional beauty awaits and vitality pulses in each moment. All this we gain from Yizkor, reinvigorating our spirits with memories and the knowledge that as long as we breath we will defy Emily's dictum from the grave and we will close in on appreciating life in all of its spendor.
I want to conclude with a most unusual story. It's from a cynical comedian, Marc Maron. He stood in his home, windows and doors open, screaming at his girlfriend about some topic he could no longer recall, demanding that she should leave his house. A man he did not know appeared at his door, pleading, "Please stop yelling at each other. Please stop yelling at each other!" Maron looked at him silently and the man repeated himself. Then he said, "I just lost my wife. Please stop yelling at each other. Do you love her?" Maron said, "It was a strange situation for her to hear for the first time that I love her."
And haven't we learned Emily's truth, and the truth of this story? Tell her you love her. Recognize that you yell not because of what s/he did but because of how you feel. Love; love; love. Someday all of us will either be the man beseeching his neighbors to say they love one another, or we'll be his wife. Embrace the lesson of death. Life IS infinitely precious, and Yom Kippur is upon us, let us resolve to make that real in our lives, so that the world will say when we are no longer walking among the living, "S/he lived as a blessing. S/he captured, embraced and appreciated the fullness of life."