“Our thoughts turn to those who have departed this earth: our own loved ones, those whom our friends and neighbors have lost, the martyrs of our people whose graves are unmarked, and those of every race and nation whose lives have been a blessing to humanity. As we remember them, we meditate on the meaning of love and loss, of life and death” (Mishkan T’Filah).
It is impossible to be alert and alive every single day and not hear about death. We hear about death on our television screens, and we read about it on whatever news websites we choose to consume our onslaught of information from. We hear stories of those we know who have lost loved ones, neighbors, and friends. Perhaps we have lost someone, or a multitude of people. We are all experiencing death as a society in a way that is difficult to compare to anything else (at least in my lifetime). There are those who have lived through the horrors of war, and recall death counts on nightly news stations, and this is apparently reminiscent. Talk of death permeates our current air and airwaves.
It is now that I believe we have run into the problem of data. We hear and read about numbers. Mortality rate, case fatality rate, rate of infection, active cases, recovered cases, hospitalized in critical condition, simply hospitalized. As of this moment, some experts have projected 3,000 deaths a day by June, and a total of over 230,000 deaths by the end of August. These are horrific numbers. What is even more horrific? The prospect that we become completely desensitized, and the numbers become just that—numbers.
Every single case, every recovery, every fight for life and breath, and every loss is a human soul. We are not losing numbers–we are losing mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, cousins, friends, neighbors. It is vital that we not let go our sense of humanity in the midst of the latest day’s numbers, projections, or models. We can maintain our own sense of well-being without forgetting the uniqueness and singularity of every life that is lost to this pandemic. Judaism teaches us to value life, and is seemingly much more focused on life than on its varied views of death. Deuteronomy 6:2 promises that if one keeps the commandments and the statutes, “…that thy days may be prolonged.” Deuteronomy 5:30 tells us that, “Ye shall walk in all the way which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess.” What do we gather from these verses? It seems that from a Jewish perspective, our reward for living well is in the here and now, not in the promise of an unknown afterlife. To put it simply–We want to live.
Inevitably, our time does come, and sometimes it comes in an abrupt manner. We see that right now with much ferocity in the face of COVID-19. As we experience, either directly, or vicariously, so much suffering and death, it might be comforting to remember that while Judaism focuses much on life, it is likely due to the fact that we can never truly be departed, and the legacy that we leave here lasts forever. This is reminiscent of the moment of Jacob’s death in Genesis. Knowing that he is living his last moments, Jacob blesses his sons and says, “I am to be gathered unto my people; bury me with my fathers…” (Gen. 49:29). During Jacob’s last moments, he speaks of being with Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. WIll Jacob see his ancestors in some sort of afterlife, or is he only giving explicit directions regarding his literal location of burial? According to Ecclesiastes 12:7, “The dust returns to the earth, where it once was, and the soul returns to God who gave it.” Remember Genesis, which tells us that man was born of “ha’adamah,” which is literally “earth” or “dust.” Perhaps we return to the place from whence we came to be with those who came before us. Perhaps we are not sure. What we do know is that we remain a part of those who come after us. The soul of every person is unique and beautifully important. Perhaps this is another aspect of what made the Holocaust so egregious. Numbering the arms of the Jew, who is anything but able to be categorized numerically is contrary to reason. The treasure of life is one that is passed down, living and breathing in every moment that comes next.
It is important that we mourn these earthy losses, as perhaps even God does. According to the Talmud, and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi in particular, The Holy One summoned an angel and asked of them, “When a king of flesh and blood loses a dear one and he wishes to mourn, what is customary for him to do?” After telling God that “He hangs a sackcloth over his door,” God agreed to do the same: “I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make a sackcloth their covering” (Isa. 50:3). We are all kings of queens of our own flesh, and it seems as if this verse could apply to any person. Maybe, right now, the heavens are clothed with a blackness, and we are a group of souls who are mourning with God, not in spite of Him.
Most of us know of the Mourner’s Kaddish, which, according to the Shulchan Aruch, is to be recited for 11 months after the death of a parent, and 30 days for a spouse, child, or sibling. If one looks at the English translation of the Kaddish, you find nothing about grieving or death. We find the exaltation and praise of God’s name instead. It is considered a great deed to recite the Kaddish for one who has passed on. By saying these words, we are conveying a trust in God’s greatness, and His ability to do what is good. We honor those who have passed by honoring God, and realizing that, perhaps, we are all part of the Divine. Again, we focus on life and legacy, living a life in a present and future that is represented and flavored by the deeds of the past and those who have gone before us. We light candles on deceased loved one’s yahrzeits, and take part in yizkor ceremonies. If someone is truly gone, why do we honor them? It seems that we honor them because they are never truly gone. I was once in a synagogue with a non-Jewish visitor. After seeing the numerous Yahrzeit plaques encompassing the sanctuary, they asked me, “is Judaism very focused on death?” They seemed to feel as if the whole thing was a bit morbid. I mentioned the joy in remembering, and explained what had been told to me by a rabbi: Remembering who they were keeps them alive and a part of who we are. In Judaism, death seems to be only a continuation of the celebration of life. So, yes, Judaism is focused on some aspects that surround death such as burial location, and the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish, and the Yahrzeit plaque. What Judaism is not focused on is death as finality. Judaism is to live on always, and that is more powerful than any virus or even death itself.
As we continue to read the papers, listen to the news, and learn of the inevitable death that is to come, it is important to remind ourselves that it is okay to mourn. God is not distant because we are grieving, but likely grieving alongside us as we all experience a difficult time on this earthly plane of existence. It is more important than ever to live Jewishly in our deeds and actions, and not to become a victim to the numbers game. Death can be viewed as a continuation of life, and is certainly treated that way in Judaism. Every action we take, every moment we have with those around us, molds us into who we are, which becomes who we were, and finally, who they are.
To those who have gone before us, due to COVID-19, or for any other reason, we say–
”Zichronam liv’rachah.” May their memories be for blessing.