June 27, 2019

Rabbi Ponders Questions of Life and Death

A rabbi is called on to perform many roles in the lives of his congregants, but surely the most challenging is comforting others in the face of death. For Rabbi Benjamin Blech, however, death suddenly became an urgent and highly intimate matter.

“My wake-up call came with the medical diagnosis that I have a fatal disease for which at present there is no cure,” he writes in the opening pages of “Hope, Not Fear: Changing the Way We View Death” (Rowman & Littlefield). “Like everyone else, I’m going to die — but for me it will probably be sooner rather than later.”

Rabbi Blech is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and a recipient of the American Educator of the Year Award. He writes a weekly column for Aish.com, contributes to The New York Times and Newsweek, and is the author of 11 books, including the Times best-seller “Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican.”

Blech draws deeply on the Jewish mystical tradition in his search for answers to the mystery of death. But he is courageous enough to reveal his own moments of dread, and sometimes he performs the remarkable feat of doing so with a sharp sense of humor. After learning that he was suffering from a disease called cardiac amyloidosis, for example, Blech did exactly what most of us would do.

“I rushed home to Google what the internet had to teach me about my illness,” he confides. “Big mistake.”

Blech encourages his readers to be courageous, too. “It is not morbid to tell yourself, ‘I am going to die,’” he writes. “It is liberating. It frees you from being enslaved to what in your heart you know doesn’t really matter. … It prevents you from wasting your life while you spend your days preparing to live.”

Some readers will be surprised at Blech’s ability to extract useful lessons from various artifacts of American popular culture, ranging from Mitch Albom’s book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” to “The Good Place,” a network television comedy starring Ted Danson.

But “Hope, Not Fear” is deeply rooted in the author’s mastery of, and reverence for, Torah and Talmud. While Blech quotes Woody Allen, who once quipped that he was not afraid to die but “I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” Blech finds more comfort in the talmudic account of Rabbi Eliezer, who commanded his followers to “repent one day before your death.” When they pointed out that it was impossible to know when the day of repentance had finally arrived, he responded, “For that reason, we must live every day as though it were our last.”

“Which is why, after much thought,” Blech said, “I now believe that my diagnosis of death, with its message of warning, in its own strange way carries with it unspoken blessings.”

Even so, Blech reminds his readers that the Bible itself does not actually answer the question that must have occurred to the very first human beings who walked the earth: What happens when we die? “The questions are limited only by our imagination,” he writes. “Surely a book written by God, or at the very least inspired by Him, should offer the answers. Remarkably, and sad to say, it doesn’t — at least not clearly, other than by way of hints that might be said to imply hidden meanings.” 

“Blech draws deeply on the Jewish mystical tradition in his search for answers to the mystery of death. But he is courageous enough to reveal his own moments of dread, and sometimes he performs the remarkable feat of doing so with a sharp sense of humor. “

But he offers a pious explanation for the omissions. “That’s because there has always been the idea of an orally transmitted Torah that accompanied the written word,” he writes. “That’s why God was content to simply hand over a book; He made sure to teach its true meaning to Moses so that through the oral tradition, the correct and full import of every text would be preserved.”

Thus does Blech validate his most important source, the teachings and commentaries of rabbis and sages. To illustrate the point, he recalls a visit that he made in the company of two other rabbis to the home of Ernest Hemingway, where the great writer praised Judaism as “a religion of life” and Blech followed up with a lesson about the laws that prevent Kohanim, the descendants of the temple priests, from making contact with the dead “so that they spend their time, their efforts, their concerns, and their energy with the living.” And Blech reminds us that Hemingway himself took his own life: “[T]ragically, the biblical ideal to ‘choose life’ that he praised in our meeting could not guide him in the end.”

While Blech’s book is uplifting and life-affirming, he does not flinch from asking (and answering) the hardest questions of all. His strong religious belief prompts him to argue that there is a heaven and a hell, places where rewards and punishments are meted out to the souls of the dead, even though the Tanakh does not explicitly mention them. “It is a theological problem that can have only one answer,” he insists. “We have no choice but to conclude that the survival of the soul after death and its judgment must be assumed if we are to accept the Bible’s validity. … Yes, even a God of love punishes.” Otherwise, he concedes, “the Bible would be a lie, deluding us with a distorted picture of the consequences of our actions.”

For all the human compassion and modern wisdom that Blech embraces, “Hope, Not Fear” is ultimately a confession of faith rather than a glib self-help book. “My faith has taught me to appreciate life and to be prepared for death,” he affirms. “And to be wise enough to share the conviction of the Hasidic rabbi who, when asked on his deathbed how he was feeling, responded ‘Almost well.’”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.