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Lifecycle: The Rabbi Who Dreaded Death
by Zoe Klein

For as long as I can remember, I have been necrophobic—fearful to the point of terror of my own ultimate demise.

Sometimes, when the night is so silent the thoughts reverberate, I obsess about dying…and then I become angry at myself for my ingratitude. I have so much to be grateful for—my health, home, family, rabbinate, community. How pathetic I am. How egocentric and arrogant!

Then I remind myself that, even as a young child, when I was too young to be arrogant, I would panic over the fact that everything dies. While my little brother would run into my parents’ room because he was afraid of the dark, I would leap into their bed because I feared I would die. One time my mother cut my fingernails and I saw a clipped nail shard severed from me. A dead thing. My chest seized up; I could not breathe. In my mind that clipping became my whole hand, and then my whole body.

Necrophobia is often passed down from generation to generation. When my son Rachmiel was four years old, the balloon he was playing with popped on a spear of tall grass. That night, as I put him to bed, he gripped my arm and asked pleadingly, “Will I pop too one day?” “You won’t pop, honey; I love you,” I said, trying to reassure him, but I was thinking, I have to understand this fear we share, so I can offer him answers I truly believe in.

I disagree with people who say necrophobia is fear of the unknown. In the very grip of heart-thumping panic, it is not the unknown I fear, but the certainty of impending nothingness.

When I was 35, I sought the assistance of a geriatric psychologist, a man who helped the elderly and people with terminal illnesses cope with end-of-life concerns. “Are you sick?” he kept asking me, unable to fathom why I was sitting in his office. “Have you experienced tragedy?” “No,” I replied. “But I have felt, most of my life, that there is a man standing just behind me with an axe aimed at my neck; everyone pretends he isn’t there, but I know he is; and I know one day he will swing that axe and kill me.”

The geriatric psychologist couldn’t help me, so I explored other therapists and therapies. I learned that the part of the brain which makes us aware of the passage of time is linked to creativity, and that artists and poets are often driven to fill up empty space in an attempt to arrest, or transcend, time. That’s true of me—a hypnotist I consulted couldn’t hypnotize me because, as he explained, he usually waited for the client to pause, which indicated that the person was ready to begin, but even after a few sessions I hadn’t stopped talking to take a breath. I kept filling up space.

It may seem strange for a person with necrophobia to have chosen a career in the rabbinate. As a rabbi I stand at graveside, praying with the living for the dead. In my pastoral work, I pray at bedside with the dying. Sometimes I ask the people near death if they are afraid—and not once has anyone ever said yes. One congregant who’d been frightened throughout a long illness found comfort in her final hours by looking at her favorite painting; she felt herself walk into it, become a part of it. The thought of death was no longer frightening, but surprisingly exquisite.

It may seem paradoxical for someone who believes in God to be so fearful of dying. I live my life as if God loves me…yet I am ever aware that each day I edge closer to the mortal cliff—and some day it will be my God, my Creator, who will push me off. Perhaps God will instead catch me, save me, and I will look back from eternal paradise to my earthly existence when, enshrouded in necrophobia, I could not muster trust in the Divine.

In many ways, the rabbinate has been for me a kind of “exposure therapy” to death. My sermons and most of my writing reflect on the unraveling of the knot of time. As a rabbi, I can stalk the Reaper, figure out his ways, maybe even decipher how to trick him, akin to how Jews tried to trick the Angel of Death by changing the name of a person thought to be at risk of dying.

My study has led me through a labyrinth of eternal themes:

Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, the chaplain who eulogized the fallen Marines at Iwo Jima (and died himself in 1995), wrote about biological immortality: Our bodies no longer live after death; they have been transformed into other kinds of life. The bodily energy and chemical elements enter the soil, becoming nutrients that sustain plants, animals, and human beings.

In their book What Happens After I Die: Jewish Views of Life After Death, Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme quoted Rabbi Bernard S. Raskas, who spoke of historical immortality: I was with my people when they were part of the exodus from Egypt. I stood with them at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. I shared in their agony during the Holocaust. I experienced their ecstasy at the birth of modern Israel. In awesome humility I say: As part of the Jewish people, I am immortal.

Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, the author of Peace of Mind (who died in 1948), spoke of leaving a legacy of immortality: We may not be sculptors, able to hew immortal statues from immobile rock, but most of us have the infinitely greater privilege of molding the spiritual life and destiny of future generations. Those whom we influence by the example of our lives bear the flame of our eternal light.

A rabbinic midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah) tells the story of how Moses, nearing the end of his life, pleaded with God, saying, “I have loved you, your Torah, and your children, and I do not want to go free; I do not want to die….I am afraid….” He begged the oceans, the mountains, the stars to advocate on his behalf, but each responded, “We too will die, so how can we help you?” “At least let me live as a bird,” Moses entreated God, “so that I can fly over the Promised Land.” But this request, too, was denied. Only when Moses witnessed Joshua taking his place, expounding Torah to the people in such a way that Moses himself no longer understood, did Moses finally concede: “I am ready.”

Gershom M. Scholem, the author of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (who died in 1982), wrote about the human soul’s continuing journey after bodily death: “The Zohar…speaks of an ascent of the soul into higher regions until in the end it enters the ‘chamber of love.’ There the last veil falls and the soul stands pure and undisguised before its Maker.”

Professor Isaiah Tishby, a scholar of Jewish mystical thought (who died in 1992), suggested that Adam represents the body before we are born, and Eve represents the soul. In this light, the Garden of Eden story is about the soul and the body learning to work together before being cast out into this world.

Milan Kundera, the Czech/French author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, said: “What terrifies most about death is not the loss of the future but the loss of the past. In fact, the act of forgetting is a form of death always present within life.” He helped me understand why I got so flustered when I forgot something.

In Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom related the story of two waves racing toward the shore. One said to the other, “This whole journey is about to end, and I am so sad and so afraid!” The other replied, “Ah, but you don’t understand. You think you are a wave when in fact you are the ocean.”

In Israel, I visited cemeteries. Wandering alone through a cemetery in Tzfat (the mountaintop city to which Jewish scholars and mystics fled following the Spanish Expulsion, turning it into the spiritual center of the Jewish world in the 16th century), I found the graves of Rabbi Isaac Luria, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, and Rabbi Yosef Caro—all painted sky-blue. When I later asked a resident why I was the sole visitor in the cemetery that day, he replied, “It is Shabbat. Today all the souls are up in the celestial academies studying with Elijah. Why would you go visit a cemetery when no one is there?” Oh, to be immersed in a culture where the immortal soul is accepted as fact….

I also wrote books. In one novel, the main character is an archaeologist tunneling through tombs in search of evidence that death is not really the end. Through writing I hoped I could sip from the elixir brewed by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz: “I imagine the earth when I am no more: Nothing happens, no loss…Yet the books will be there on the shelves….”

To my great surprise, after such an exhausting quest, the epiphany I sought arose out of a mundane moment: as I sat in my Toyota Hybrid, paused at a traffic light on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, looking absently at a tumble of purple flowers spilling over a stone wall. Then it struck me: These flowers, shivering in sequins of dew, are speaking to me! And instead of saying, wistfully, We are only living here for a short while, which is how I generally interpret something so pretty, fragile, and fresh, they were announcing, Invitation! They were offering me an invitation to view the subject of death from a new angle.

As the light turned green and traffic began moving, I thought: To fear death is to reject God’s exquisite creation.

Until that moment, I had understood death as murder—and God as executioner.

At last, I could see death differently, not as murder, but as invitation—an invitation to participate in a dance outside of time. This dance includes every meadow, every rainstorm, every unhewn gem, every particle of dust, every six-pointed snowflake, every intricate crawling thing, every stellar explosion, every collapse of star, every planetary ring, every Big Bang, every first breath, every unfolding bud. Maybe God isn’t executioner, but escort. Maybe it hadn’t been an axe at my neck all along, but a rose.

I had always thought that if I did enough mitzvot, perhaps God would spare me. At that moment I realized that this way of thinking was in essence a renunciation of God’s world, because it assumed that when I died, I would be cast out of the world of the living like some worthless, empty thing. My inevitable death would be God’s ultimate rejection of me. Now I understood that in life we are in covenant, and in death we are at One. I am a leaf on the tree of life that will some day rejoin the soil and quench the roots and reintegrate with everything. To die is not to be cast out, but to be invited to enter the very Source of Life, the great and complete embrace. Love.

My fear of death has not totally abated. But whereas I used to spiral into complete panic, now, when the tremble begins, I think of a hike, a bicycle ride, the taste of fresh fruit picked from a tree, or other moments when I freed myself to be a part of life, not apart from it. I think, invitation, and begin to relax. I remember the message of the Sabbath, how it sets the majesty of simply being over the mastery of things. I feel like I am learning a new dance, and my teachers are every creature, my text every tree. I feel less alone.

I can even appreciate my phobia now. After all, it brought me on a journey of discovery—midrashim, mysticism, rabbinic wisdom, art, science, philosophy, beauty, and human connection.

My son saw a dead bird the other day and became terribly anxious. I said to him, “Death is part of God’s world. And God’s world is beautiful.” He nodded, because neither of us doubted that both of these thoughts are true.

The answer is not in chasing transcendence. It is in surrendering to wholeness.

Rabbi Zoe Klein is the senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. Her novel, Drawing in the Dust (Simon & Schuster), is being released this Spring in paperback.


Union for Reform Judaism.