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Jewish Wisdom for the End of Life
Rabbi Jack Riemer. Five of Jewish tradition's central insights about how to live and die as a Jew. Part of Focus: Death & Bereavement. Summer 1997.

Jewish Wisdom for the End of Life
Five of our tradition's central insights about how to live and die as a Jew.

By Jack Riemer

A friend once told me the story of his father's death. It was on the seventh day of Passover, so just as he had done every year of his life, the father recited the Hallel, the psalms of thanksgiving and rejoicing that are said on this holiday. Sometime later, sensing that he was nearing his end, the father, surrounded by his family, reopened the prayer book and recited the traditional end-of-life prayer--the Vidui. Soon afterwards, he died.

That is the Jewish way of death at its most ideal--connected to one's family, to King David, and to the Psalms. Very few of us will go that way. For most of us the end will come in some antiseptic intensive-care unit where visitors are rarely allowed and children forbidden. We will probably be heavily sedated, which, mercifully, will lower the pain but which will also lower our awareness. If you contrast these two images--of the one who dies connected to his family and to King David and the one who dies in sterile, antiseptic isolation--you have the difference between the way it was and the way it is today.

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The Jewish understanding of death and dying is different from that of contemporary culture in at least five ways. I will describe them in ascending order of importance and in ascending order of difficulty to talk about.

I. Realism and Honesty

We read in the Bible that when Jacob felt his life was about to end, he gathered his children around the bedside and said: "Behold, I am now about to die." In another Torah portion, King David, nearing the end of his life, said to his family: "Behold, I am now about to go the way of all flesh." In both cases, the disclosure was stated directly, with complete candor. They used no euphemisms. They made no effort to deceive their families or themselves; so unlike contemporary culture, with its "memorial gardens," its "slumber rooms," and all its other futile efforts to deny the reality of death.

In Judaism death is an ever-present possibility within life, a constant companion. A person should know that every day might be his or her last; therefore, as one talmudic rabbi instructs us: "A person should repent one day before he dies." Traditional Jews do not say, "I'll see you tomorrow" because no one owns tomorrow. They say, "I'll see you tomorrow, God willing," or "I'll see you tomorrow, but that is not a promise." This is the Jewish way of affirming that life is fragile and precarious, that each new day is not an entitlement but a precious gift to be savored.

A story is told about the American tourist who came to visit the Chafetz Chayim, one of the great sages of eastern Europe. The tourist surveyed the rabbi's room and saw only a table, a chair, a closet, a bookcase, and a bed.

"Where are your possessions?" he asked.

"Where are your possessions?" replied the rabbi.

"What do you mean, 'Where are my possessions?'" asked the tourist. "I am just a visitor here."

"So am I," said the Chafetz Chayim.

One of the most important meanings of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is that it is an annual confrontation with and rehearsal for death. The Yom Kippur prayers focus on the preciousness and the precariousness of life. We bless our children in advance, as if to bid them farewell. In times past, and still today in many traditional congregations, worshipers don a kittel, a simple white linen garment with no pockets, the garment they will wear in the grave. It is a powerful, humbling, educational experience to put on a kittel once a year. It reminds us of our mortality. The notion of asking forgiveness on Yom Kippur takes on special significance when you see someone in a kittel whom you've been meaning to make up with "one of these days." "One of these days" may be too late.

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In our synagogue we conduct a burial service for holy books that are damaged beyond repair. This ceremony provides our children with an opportunity to visit and tour a cemetery. Every time we schedule a book burial, at least one parent confronts me and says, "I don't want my child to go. I don't want my child traumatized." I respond, "It's up to you. You don't have to send your child if you don't want to, but I think you are making a mistake." It would be nice if we had a contract with the world whereby our children were shielded from all disturbing or traumatic experiences until we felt they were ready for them, but we have no such contract. Therefore, it is better for them to know before they need than to need before they know.

We spend months teaching our children how to be bar or bat mitzvah, but we never teach them the Vidui, as if they will never need to say it. This prayer to be said when dying no longer even appears in many modern prayerbooks. It reads: "Dear God, I want to live. But if this is Your decree, then I accept it from Your hand. Take care of my loved ones, with whom my soul is bound. Into Your hand I commit my soul. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." The Vidui ought to be reinstated in our prayerbooks and taught in our schools.

We are all born to die. That is what we learn from wearing the kittel on the Day of Atonement, from hearing the stories of the last days of Jacob and of David, from going to a book burial, and from reciting the Vidui.

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II. Equality and Simplicity

We waste much of our lives competing with each other. Too often, we are so envious of other people's possessions that we can't enjoy our own.

Jewish tradition teaches that at some point this race has to stop. Therefore, it calls upon us to bury every body in a plain, white linen shroud (with no pockets, because you can't take your possessions with you) and in a plain, simple, pine box. Rich and poor are to be buried alike. At least at the end of life, if not before, let there be no pressure to "keep up with the Cohens."

III. Community

Ours is not an I-Thou religion; ours is a We-Thou religion. To be a Jew means to be a cousin of the Jew in Cairo and the Jew in Calcutta, of the Jew in Berlin and the Jew in Baghdad. To be a Jew means to be connected, horizontally and vertically, to all the Jews around the world and to all the Jews of the past, the present, and the future. To be a Jew means to be a descendant of Abraham and Sarah and to be an ancestor of the Messiah. We come before God not alone but as part of a people. So at the time of our greatest confusion and helplessness, isolation and bewilderment, the community reaches out and reminds us that we are not alone. It does so not in words but by deeds. When the mourner comes back from the funeral, he or she is instructed by Jewish law to eat. Food symbolizes life. Halachah (religious law) further requires that the mourners not prepare the food; relatives and friends are obliged to do so. The minyan is held not in the synagogue but in the home. Thus, twice a day ten people come into the house to pray and reinforce the message that the bereaved is not alone.

One of the expressions for dying in Jewish tradition is to be gathered to your people, which means "to become an ancestor, to become a part of history." When standing with a mourner at a grave, what should you say? Whatever we say sounds so glib, so insufficient, so inadequate. According to the tradition, you are supposed to recite, "Hamakom yinachem etchem bitoch shaar aveyley Tsiyon viyirushalayim," which means: May God comfort you--since we don't know how--together with all those who are mourning for Zion and Jerusalem.

Why should the bereaved be reminded of the troubles of Zion and Jerusalem? Doesn't the mourner have enough troubles? These words give us perspective. They serve as a reminder that we are part of a community that needs us. We find comfort in knowing we are not the only ones in mourning and in pain, and that we are needed to help assuage the grief of others.

IV. Jewish Law (Halachah)

The sacred books of Judaism are filled with numerous technical laws on illness, death, and bereavement. For example, the Shulchan Aruch, the great compilation of Jewish law, lists page after page of detailed regulations. How do you visit a sick person? Do you visit in the morning or in the afternoon? Do you pray or do you not? You are supposed to sit home for a week. What constitutes a week? Does the first day count? Does the last day? You are supposed to tear a garment. What kind? What size tear? Which side of the garment? Can it ever be mended? So many questions.

These mourning laws give form and shape to our grief and regulate our activities, preventing both excess and anarchy. Left to our own devices, who knows what we might do in time of loss? Two thousand years before Freud, the sages said: "Whoever wants to mourn more than the law requires must be mourning for something else." We are not permitted to extend the process beyond what the law requires. Ready or not, when the seventh day ends, we have to move on to the next stage. Nor may we mourn less than the law requires. People who say, "I don't have time to sit for seven days" may end up on the therapist's couch working out unexpressed grief for many times seven days.

Why do we sit shiva for seven days? Because the world was made in seven days, and each person is a world that never was before and never will be again. If death is cheap, then life is cheap. So the tradition says: stop whatever you are doing, take notice, mourn for the full seven days, and thereby affirm the sanctity of life.

In times of loss and bereavement, our abundant laws encompass even the most obscure and unlikely events. In rabbinical school we studied the question: if a funeral procession meets a bridal procession at a crossroads, which one has the right of way? I remember thinking: how could such a thing ever happen? Well, I have since been involved in two weddings in which the mother of the bride died suddenly on the day of the wedding. The families were stunned and bewildered and hadn't a clue what to do. At such times, one can look up the answer in the sacred writ--because whatever can happen has happened before--and learn from the wisdom of sages who dealt with these issues in calm deliberation and decided what should be done. That is the blessing of having a comprehensive legal system such as ours.

V. God

God is part of the answer; God is part of the question. If a human being is nothing more than a collection of chemicals or just another link in the food chain, then we have no right and no reason to hope that anything exists beyond this life. But if life is a gift, a wonder and a trust, then we have reason and right to hope for something more after our earthly existence.

According to Jewish tradition, to die is "to surrender life to the living," which suggests that there is a divine economy in which each generation has its turn and then must let go for the sake of the next generation. Niftar, the term for dying, means "to be released from duty," to be summoned back after the work of this world is completed, and to enter the world of rest.

This world is better than the world to come because in this world we can do things for God; in the world to come we can only be sustained by God.

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Realism and honesty, equality and simplicity, community, law, and God--these are our tradition's central insights into life and into death. They cannot put off or prevent death, but they can make of death not a defeat but a homecoming, not an interruption but a summation, not a negation but a harvest.

Jack Riemer is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikvah in West Boca Raton, Florida. This article is adapted from the Introduction to Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning © 1995 by Jack Riemer. Reprinted by permission of Schocken Books, New York, a division of Random House, Inc.


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