May 2016, Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron

Dear friends,

It is no doubt a hazard of my job to be preoccupied with death and grief, but lately I’ve been thinking about it more than usual. The reason may be partially that we have recently commemorated Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron – whose central theme is tragic death on a mass scale – and recently ARK Centre hosted a professor from Cambodia who spoke of the genocide there. The focus of these occasions has been primarily on the tragedy of all the needless suffering and death perpetrated by human beings one on another.
What I’ve been thinking about, more specifically, is death in and of itself.

Probably this has had a lot to do with the fact that in the last little while, unfortunately, a few of my closest friends have had to experience this firsthand, with the untimely loss of a parent. Witnessing their grief I naturally wonder to myself, what can be said to console in the face of such loss? And since the loss of our dearest ones forces us to face our own immortality I’ve been asking what can be said about death that can help quell our terror of its inevitability?

A lot has been said about death in the name of religion; things like death is not real; it’s merely a passage to heaven. And what heaven looks like depends on perspective. I remember when I was 12 or so a Talmud teacher of mine expounded on the idea of heaven by saying that it is an eternal lesson in Talmud. I must admit that on that my idea of heaven wasn’t so positive. And there are an infinite number of other versions of heavens described, each one a seemingly childish projection of the things lacking and therefore desired of the one making the claim. When your reality, however is one where premarital sex is forbidden and you are a single adolescent male with lots of anger and a myriad of emotions, your heaven is apparently made of seventy virgins.

The first time the Torah mentions death is in the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. God says to them: ‘of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die’.

Of course they eat from the forbidden fruit. On account of that, the snake is doomed to be a creepy crawly developing an unhealthy relationship with humankind, the woman to suffer pangs of labour, and the man to toil for a living. And humans are destined to die, ‘from dust you come and to dust you shall return’.

Growing up we were taught this as a primary lesson of obedience to God. We must obey God’s instructions for the minutest infringement can be so severely punished.

The problem with this reading is manifold:
Firstly, punishing all humanity for eternity for a sin committed by two lovebirds during their infatuation period seems a little bit disproportionate I would think. And their sin? Trying forbidden fruit! Seems to me like a victimless crime and certainly not one deserving of anything but perhaps a warning to tresspassers. Secondly, although God says when you eat from it you will die, Adam lives to the ripe old age of 930! Thirdly, are we to believe that if not for their disobedience we would live forever? Nothing, in our experience lives forever. Everything is born, lives, and dies. Lastly, what is the significance of the forbidden fruit coming from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad? Sounds quite positive!

Rather than a story of disobedience to God I believe this story is a portrayal of the human evolution of self-consciousness. Before a certain time we were not self-conscious and life was easy if not fulfilling. We were able run around naked and act entirely out of instinct without any mental and emotional complications. But after we had tasted of the tree of knowledge we lost our innocence. But loss of innocence is not all bad. In fact, it is this loss of innocence that renders us utterly unique from the rest of the animal kingdom. For it made us capable of becoming moral agents. While this does mean that humans can become destroyers, a reality unfortunately ubiquitous in the history of human civilization, it also allows for humans to be creators.

Death, therefore, is not a punishment for disobedience. Rather, awareness of death, and its resulting despair, is the price we pay for being human. On the flipside though, our being human affords us the opportunity to create the most incredibly loving personal relationships. It is these connections that make the trauma of life not only bearable but worthwhile. And it is also the greatest consolation in the face of death. The fuller you live life through love, the more bearable the fact of death of loved ones and your own becomes.

The advent of death then, and the rude awakening to our own immortality, becomes an opportunity to evolve our consciousness by refocusing our attention, not on castles in the sky, but on the important things in life.

In the words of one of my favourite authors – Irvin D. Yalom in the Spinoza Problem: “If Epicurus were speaking to you at this moment, he would urge you to simplify life. Here’s how he might put it if he were standing here today: ‘Lads, your needs are few, they are easily attained, and any necessary suffering can be easily tolerated. Don’t complicate your life with such trivial goals as riches and fame: they are the enemy of ATARAXIA. Fame, for example, consists of the opinions of others and requires that we must live our life as other wish. To achieve and maintain fame, we must like what others like and shun whatever it is that they shun. Hence, a life of fame or a life in politics? Flee from it. And wealth? Avoid it! It is a trap. The more we acquire the more we crave, and the deeper our sadness when our yearning is not satisfied. Lads, listen to me: If you crave happiness, do not waste your life struggling for that which you really do not need.”

May we all find the light through the sometimes dark tunnel of human experience.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur