Jewish Meditations on the Meaning of Death

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So even during that highway time of my hand perpetually on her thigh—there to confirm she still wanted me beside her, would always want me beside her—in the middle of that love, of that desert, of that night, death was clearly, relentlessly present. I, with great thanks to my solid Polish peasant stock, will apparently make it to ninety-five, dying Monday, September 9, Meaning, as I write this, I have just under two billion more seconds to live. If I knew it were true, if I knew my body would last six more decades and no catastrophe would intervene, would I live with more or less urgency?

And what would it be like to die on a Monday? What new pandemics, wars, extinctions? Will I have to scuba dive to visit my childhood home in Florida? And, most importantly, will my wife be there, in that number, with me?

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I imagine looking at the bedside table. Yet The Death Clock , random as real death, gives her until only Death, at that point, would be something to be not postponed but welcomed. According to the Talmud, there are types of death. For the rest of us, the separation of soul from body is less a slipping away than a wrenching.

Jewish Meditations Meaning Death by Chaim Rozwaski - AbeBooks

And the more invested we are in the material over the spiritual, the more wedded we are to our bodies, the more difficult this inevitable disunion. The Talmud compares this most difficult type of death to pulling a thorn backward out of a ball of tightly wound wool. Never having cared much for material things, I fear my wife is the world with which I am entangled. I plucked the flower from its stem and cupped it in my palm. Almost without weight, the orchid felt like a key, like a way back to the moment of her death, awful as it was, and then back to the moment just before it, when my grandmother was still my grandmother, the her-ness of her not yet gone.

I found a leather-bound dictionary on her desk in which to press it. But that was just a blue-sky view of life with no real-world city grit.

Jewish Meditations on the Meaning of Death

Too many shepherds and sun-kissed fields. Perhaps the reason no word exactly means a view of, or a musing upon life, as in a poem is that every poem, even those about death, are views on life. And the best poems are those that write the daily, the seen-so-often as to no longer be seeable, in a way that makes it new—those poems that give the world back to us.

At eighty-five, after a decade of chemo strafing her brain, leaving it broken as a bombed-out city, my grandmother had a peripatetic relationship with time. In her final months, a time before my wife in which I was single and able to work remotely, I flew home to Florida to visit her as often as I could. But each day, I learned something new: her fingers were close to half an inch longer than mine; we had the same color eyes. So as all the memories and manners we think of as making the self a self wore away, they exposed not anger at the failures of her body and mind, but a bedrock of kindness, a deep, abiding gratitude for the life she had lived.

And by the end, she was ready.

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The day she died, I raced a borrowed bicycle down a road with orange groves on either side. Each tree I passed was an orange constellation, each grove a mythology already well on its way to rotting by February. Being so close to death had unmoored me. All the stories she told at the end looped through my mind, but the details were already running together, and I could no longer ask her to clarify. Giant oaks towered above the intersections, thick with tattered pennants of moss, casting all possible new directions into deep shadow.

I rode forward without looking side to side, not wanting to make any choices. Instinct said, Go back, go forward, go slower, go faster, go, just go, but I stopped instead.

Bereavement in Judaism

Stood static and footed, entombed in the blare of horn as it swerved so close I could feel the exact distance between my head and the side mirror. Close your eyes and repeat after me: What if death comes today?


If you are attending a Jewish funeral or wish to comfort someone who practices Judaism, here is a list of the prayers that are commonly recited at a service and throughout the mourning period. The Everlasting is his heritage, and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.

Death Rituals: Creating Jewish Life

This prayer for the departed is a central prayer of Jewish funeral and memorial services and is also recited or sung at grave visitations and anniversaries of death. It is essentially a plea that the soul or souls of the departed be granted proper rest. Altered variations of the prayer exist for men, women and other remembrances, such as those for fallen members of service.

May He establish His kingdom during the days of your life and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily, yea, soon; and say ye, Amen. The Kaddish is recited at the end of a minyan service, a Jewish prayer service for mourners held daily during the shiva and consisting of at least 10 Jews.

At the heart of the extraordinary story of the "binding of Isaac," then, onto which has been laden the profoundest hopes of Judaism and Christianity alike, and which also has become one of their deepest points of division, is this crash of meaning. Jewish tradition attempts to explicate the akedah in many, and richly, different ways; Christian tradition, from the time of Paul on, reads it, of course, in terms of supersession: Christ as Isaac, or Christ as the ram in the thicket - sacrifice done better.

But both traditions, at their deepest, acknowledge that here they are pushed to the edge of their interpretative resources. Here, in fact, we might even say that they meet, where the mystery and pain of the presence of God in sacrifice or cross appears to condone the world's violence and sadism, but actually and insistently propels us beyond them to a place where idolatry is rebuked, meaning re-embraced, and love re-made.

I have spoken so far in the third person, but let me close by being more daringly concrete and even autobiographical. There is, I believe, in the adventure of prayer, in our intimate relation with God, a point of breakthrough that takes us straight into the heart of the akedah story, the heart of the cross. It can only be called a moment of authentic spiritual terror. It comes when one allows God to invade one's vulnerability in such a way that one sees that one's polite, manageable image of that God has all along been an idol - a very big "something" that can be relied upon to protect one's good undertakings and worthy religious projects, and above all one's acceptable image of oneself.

The smashing of this idol, whether through patient prayer or personal disaster - or both - is a crisis of huge spiritual significance: I can walk into the dread, in which, seemingly, God has become nightmarish threat, or I can retreat. But at the heart of this nightmare is the same irresolvable conundrum of the "binding of Isaac" or of the cross: for this new God who magnetizes me and allures me and demands of me nothing less than everything, and whom I desire above everything, is the same God who also seems to turn on me and slay me, even as he "binds" and hands me over, with Christ in the Passion, into a new posture of pure, passive love.

The contradiction is, in human terms, seemingly unbearable. But the point about this moment, if the great spiritual guides of both Jewish and Christian tradition are right, is that it is also purposive, purgative and transformative. It is, in fact, the very death of violent, "patriarchal" religion, a touch of God infinitely gentle and caressing, if only we could attain the "vertical" perspective. As John of the Cross puts it in one of the more intense chapters of the second book of his Dark Night of the Soul , describing what he calls the 'night of spirit':.

So the religious problem of the binding of Isaac, and the religious problem of the cross of Jesus, are not "solved" by any theory or cleverness, but mediated in the story, lived out, sweated out, in the lives and prayer and waiting of those willing to be taken into un-meaning and beyond idolatry.

Death & Bereavement in Judaism: Death and Mourning

Here is the true sacrifice, the "binding," the cross, where human control fails, though divine meaning does not, if we could but glimpse the "vertical" dimension, the exchange of ecstatic love in the inner life of God, the touch of infinite tenderness in the Father's receiving of the Son's suffering for the sake of the world's salvation. But on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, we can only wait for that return of meaning.

We wait on the mystery. And so we stay for these hours, with the women, where we began, at the foot of the cross. O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favourably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of your salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

There is all the difference in the world - is there not? In the Passion according to John, there is no doubt that John's Jesus is "accomplishing" on the cross what his Father has intended to him to do even from before the world's foundation. The very language he uses has this full and rich evocation - of goal, of triumph, all bound up in the word tetelestai "the goal is reached".

The Logos, the pre-existent Word of John's Prologue, has now enacted his full work of salvation and has been lifted up on the cross, not to humiliation - as the world sees it - but to "glory. Perhaps the clue lies in this matter of "accomplishment. It is like looking down the back of Jesus's dying, sweating, neck from above, as St John of the Cross once sketched the dying Christ, knowing that, despite all appearances, everything is exactly in order.

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  7. But this confidence is easy for us to get wrong. We can assent to it notionally, but when it comes to its implications for our own lives it seems empty and extrinsic, as if John's Jesus was some sort of Superman on whom the constraints of time and space did not really impinge, and whose magic has little to do with the humiliating details of our own lives.

    He lives in the world of archetypal meaning; we live in the world of banality. His suffering is heroic and transformative; ours is merely pathetic and meaningless. But herein lies the rub. For our own worst experiences of pain, suffering or grief so often have this quality of irreducible meaninglessness.

    If we could fit them mentally into some box bound for glory, they would not have the power over us that they do; they would not be the suffering that they are to us. If we could bend our minds to see that this - my private grief, my unshakeable guilt, my rocky marriage, my repetitive stupidity, my addiction, my bad lot of fate or genes - were the stuff out of which the deepest human fulfilment could even now be wrought, we might concoct a most satisfying secular psychology to make us cheerful again.

    But this we cannot do. For it seems impossible for us to believe that God, being God, has allowed me to undergo this agony, this loss, this burden, this illness, to be the perfect anvil on which is being hammered out my salvation, my own "glory. It is not saying that once there was a Superman who got around all this negative stuff of mine and supposedly effected an extrinsic miracle of some sort that I really cannot fathom. Nor is it saying that suffering is a good in itself from which I should not do my best to escape where possible, with all the good clinical and therapeutic tools that the modern world offers me. Here, and only here - not in some spurious escapist fantasy-land - do I learn the real way of peace and joy. Here, and only here, do I walk the way of Jesus, through death to new life. So when we bend and venerate the cross on Good Friday, there are several things that I think we must be clear, if John's gospel is right, that we are not doing. We are not assenting to ongoing injustice, violence, or abuse in our world: that would be negligence or cowardice.

    We are not voting for a passive acceptance of the misuse of power: that would be masochism. We are not saying that human agony and suffering are alright after all, or that by some magic of mind-over-matter I can grit my teeth and see them through to the other side: that would be stoicism.