A story is told of Reb Simcha Bunam, one of the early and great Hasidic masters, who was close to the last moments of life. As he lay in bed, his grief-stricken wife burst into tears. With calm equanimity, the dying man looked at her lovingly, and said: “Why are you crying? My whole life was only that I might learn how to die.” And with these words rolling off his lips, he died peacefully, fully accepting his finite human fate.
In many ways, this is a strange deathbed story. The very idea of spending one’s life learning to die stands in radical contrast with our societal norms which assert that life and youth, above all, are important. Prescriptions for life, not death, are taught by parents and promulgated in schools. From a young age, children are given life skills; adolescents taught how to cope with the vicissitudes of social and economic life in our times. And elders are given inspirational guidelines to keep on living, enjoying life. As a society, we do all we can to avoid the subject of dying and death—and yet, as human beings, die we must!
Even though the reality of death and dying is hard-wired into the operating system of human folk, our society is death-denying. No one wants to talk about death—in so many ways, large and small, we avoid the D-word. The very language we use distances us from the reality of human mortality. People don’t die, we say they passed, passed away, passed on, expired (my teacher Reb Zalman used to say he would have to check his driver’s license regularly to see if he had expired), or the colloquial euphemism par excellence, we say they “kicked the bucket”. As a culture, we sanitize death, avoid talking about the deceased, and in well-meaning ways, people often say to friends and loved ones who are bereaved “call me if you need me”. Then we stay away from grief-stricken people because we are uncomfortable with too much display of emotion.
As many people recall, at the funeral of John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie was the stoic, bereaved widow, emotionally in control, not revealing messy, disturbing, unpleasant emotions. For an entire generation, Jacqueline Kennedy was seen as the cultural model of how to deal with death and grief.
Sheryl Sandberg, the CFO of Facebook, after dealing with the sudden death of her fifty-year-old husband, authored a book called Option B – Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy in Life. In speaking about her work creating support groups for people going through loss, she claims that talking openly about death and being public about our feelings of grief and loss are culturally-radical in this society. And in that sense, Judaism’s approach to death, in contrast to that of our contemporary society, is culturally-radical, as is the Jewish practice of saying a communal Yizkor prayer service to remember the dead, prescribed to be done four times a year.
In reciting Yizkor prayers publicly, we recognize that we are a community of bereaved. We stand up and are seen as mourning for parents, siblings, spouses and sadly for some, mourning the death of a child. In saying Yizkor we acknowledge we experienced the reality of death and loss and are not hiding from that truth. We gather with others in community to honor the memory of those who have died, to console one another, and to assuage our hurting heart. And even more, by saying Yizkor we align and enter in conversation with souls of loved ones who have died and are in the world beyond— the realm the medieval Kabbalist Nahmanides called Olam HaNeshamot, the World of Souls.
For Judaism, dealing with death in an open-hearted and compassionate way is normative; only against the background of our society is it culturally-radical. As Jews living within the mainstream North American culture, many of us have lost touch with this inherent traditional Jewish wisdom which remembers the reality of death and loss in open, realistic ways.
Examining the spectrum of contemporary Jewish death practices, we see how a realistic view of death is inherent to Jewish life and culture. Take for a starting example the Jewish funeral—what is the crescendo ritual moment of Jewish burial? Nothing says death is realistic more clearly than the echoing sound of earth shoveled upon the casket by immediate family members. At that startling moment we know death is real, and one can imagine seeing every clump of earth that had ever hit the coffin of every Jewish person ever buried.
In the month of Elul, prior to the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah, it is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones. As a New Year approaches, we acknowledge the reality of death by going to the cemetery as if to give our loved ones an end-of -ear report, and to ask for their blessings for the New Year.
Similarly, consider the practice of Yizkor, memorial prayers said in synagogue four times a year—when? At Yom Kippur: it makes sense to remember the dead on a day we chant the Unetaneh Tokef prayer speaking of “who shall live and who shall die” and asking to be inscribed for another year in the Book of Life. We also say Yizkor on the final days of the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. In the time of celebration of our joyous holy days, zman simchateinu,we acknowledge the reality that our loved ones are no longer with us, and recite Yizkor to remember and honor them. Life and death, celebration and mourning are interwoven.
And the Jewish recitation of Kaddish Yatom, the Mourners Kaddish: where does this act of ritual mourning take place? Not in private but in a communal context. Recitation of Mourners Kaddish is a public act, one stands and is seen as one who experienced a loss. We do not deny, hide or sanitize the reality that death has impacted, or is impacting our life.
Similarly, shiva—seven days of public mourning after the death of a family member—is likewise a communal ritual practice. Shiva is not simply a well-catered event where people engage in small talk or banalities filling the uncomfortable silence. It is a collective mourning ritual, a public opportunity to comfort mourners, to remember the person who has died, and to help send the soul of the deceased on its post-mortem journey.
Walking into a synagogue, we see another public declaration honoring the reality of death. In both contemporary and older synagogue buildings one of the first things we encounter upon entering are the yahrzeit plaques, the memorial board telling us of the generations of those who have lived and died.
Even more, the way Judaism approaches the reality of death in the midst of life can be found in Jewish wedding traditions. Prior to the wedding, it is traditional for a bride and groom to go to the cemetery visiting graves of loved ones. Before my own wedding, I went with my father to the graves of his father and mother, my grandparents whom I had known. But we also trekked through the distant rows of an old cemetery in Montreal, Canada to find the graves of his four grandparents. It was a profoundly meaningful moment for me, feeling the connection with the ancestral generations I had never known as I prepared for entering a new chapter of my own life.
It is also taught that present under the huppah with the bride and groom are all their ancestors and descendants. When I prepare a couple for marriage, I ask who among their ancestors that died do they want to remember under the huppah. This is the Jewish way; just as we break a glass at the end of the wedding in memory of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, even in times of joy we honor the generations that have passed before us.
And finally, just as it is traditional to wear a white linen garment—a kittel—on Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and at the Passover Seder, it is also worn by a groom at the time of the wedding. And although many are unfamiliar with this practice, the deceased Jewish man, traditionally, is robed in that same kittel at the time of burial.
In so many ways for Judaism life and death are interwoven into the very fabric of the universe. We don’t deny death because we don’t deny life; we affirm that life and death are sacred dimensions of human existence. That is the deeper Jewish mystery underlying our act of saying Yizkor on Yom Kippur this year.
We also see this idea of the interweaving of life and death in Torah. In Genesis 27 we read the following statement:
And it came to pass, when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said to him, My son; and he said to him, Behold, here I am. And he said, Behold now, I am have grown old, and do not know the day of my death; (Gen. 27:1-2)
At first, when we look at what Isaac has to say, it makes perfect sense. Isaac, having become blind, is clearly aware of his aging and his vulnerability. On the surface, there is nothing problematic or remarkable about this passage. As in the story of Reb Simcha Bunam, often we hear words of wisdom on the deathbed. But what is strange about this Biblical verse is that when we follow the narrative of the Torah about Isaac, we discover that he actually does not die for many years. As subsequent chapters of Genesis unfold we read about the continuing story of Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau, and eventually about his beloved wife Rachel’s death and burial on the road to Bethlehem; and only at the end of Genesis 35 does Torah inform us of Isaac’s death:
And Jacob came to Isaac his father to Mamre, to the city of Arba, which is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned. And the days of Isaac were a hundred and eighty years. And Isaac died, and was gathered to his people, being old and full of days; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him. (Gen. 35:27-29)
Isaac says “I am old, I don’t know the day of my death”—and then he lives on for quite a while. According to the Midrash, at least another twenty-five years! So what do we learn from Isaac’s declaration of the uncertainty of the timing of his impending death? We see that Isaac accepts the inevitability of his own death and then proceeds to do what he had to do to live his life fully. This is what we learn from Isaac and this is the message we want to take with us as we prepare for Yizkor this year. While Judaism accepts death as a realistic part of life and provides opportunities to mourn our losses, there is no glorification of death. Even in accepting the reality of death with integrity, the imperative of all this is to live fully, to live a life of holiness and meaning.
So this year, on Yom Kippur, when we face our human mortality so clearly in our liturgy, as we read about “who shall live and who shall die” we are reminded by Reb Simcha Bunam, by our ancestor Isaac and by the legacy of Jewish tradition that our task is to honor the reality of death AND to live our lives fully.
As we prepare to say Yizkor this year, think about the loved ones for whom you are saying Yizkor. What is their legacy to you? What did you learn from them about how to live life fully? What are the gifts of spirit that they have bequeathed to you? Saying Yizkor gifts us with opportunity to harvest wisdom of generations past.
To conclude: I recently heard a country music song that embodies the same teaching expressed in the story of Reb Simcha Bunam. In the song Live Like You Are Dying by Tim McGraw, he sings of his father’s wrestling with a terminal medical diagnosis, and he and his father enter into dialog which (in an edited version) unfolds like this:
“When it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How’s it hit you
When you get that kind of news?
Man, what’d you do?”
[And his father answered]
I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu
“I was finally the husband
That most of the time I wasn’t
And I became a friend a friend would like to have
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying”
“And I spoke sweeter
And I watched an eagle as it was flying”
And he said
“Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying
To live like you were dying
To live like you were dying”
May we all live the fullness of our life with
passion, conviction and integrity!
May we all be signed and sealed in the Book of Life.
Gmar Hatimah Tovah
Reb Simcha Raphael, Ph.D.
DA’AT Institute for Death Awareness, Advocacy and Training