November 18, 2018

A Life is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Every textbook of religion will tell you that death is the great catalyst of spirituality. Religion, it is argued, comes to answer the problem of death. But, if that is so, where is the tractate of Talmud that deals with death? Talmud Shabbat details the laws of Sabbath, Ketubot describes marriage law, Baba Metzia treats torts and litigation, but there’s no volume on death. If death is the pre-eminent spiritual issue, why does it receive so little attention in the Bible? The Bible takes four verses in the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy to describe the death of Moses. And there’s nothing about his afterlife or his reception into heaven. Abraham dies in three verses. King David in two verses. Why so little about the greatest of spiritual mysteries?

I was just 27 years old and two weeks out of seminary when my senior colleague asked me to help a family that had just lost an elderly patriarch. I gulped in terror. I’d never done this before. So I called the family, set an appointment and drove ever so slowly to their home, wondering whatever happened to my plans for law school. I stood for some minutes in front of the house, asking myself: What am I doing here? What can I say to these people in the face of death? Finally gathering courage, I rang the bell. They graciously invited me, and we sat together in the living room. The wife, the children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews — they all sat and patiently waited for me, the rabbi, to say something profound.

“God guards fools,” wrote the Psalmist. And God certainly guarded me, for out of my dry mouth came something miraculous: “Tell me about your papa.” The family was surprised. They expected me to do all the talking. They expected some discourse on Jewish custom and belief.

“Tell me about your papa; where was he from?” I repeated. And then it began — a trickle, a shower, then a flood of stories. Papa’s journey to America. His days on the Lower East Side. How he romanced Mama in his brother’s ’27 Packard. Tales of his struggles, his triumphs, his disappointments, shared lovingly with tears and laughter, sighs and smiles. That day, ironically amid mourning and grief, Papa came alive to his grandchildren.

I learned from this family that the greatest spiritual problem is not death, but life: How to live with significance. How to live a life that is important. How to invest oneself in the eternal. We cry at the death of those we love, those we admire, those who touch us. But the greater spiritual tragedy isn’t death. The greater tragedy is to die never having lived. I mourn those who die at 30 but aren’t buried until they’re 80. I mourn empty, hollow, wasted lives — touching no one, accomplishing nothing, making no difference. I mourn lives devoted entirely to distraction, entertainment, diversion. I mourn the life unlived, the love unshared, the ideals unfulfilled, the song unsung.

The Torah portion this week is called Chaye Sarah — “the life of Sarah.” The title is ironic because the portion relates to the death of Sarah. And even more ironic is Abraham’s response: He cries. All through the narrative, Abraham is oblivious. Sarah is kidnapped by Pharaoh; he’s worried about his own survival. She struggles with her infertility; he worries about his legacy. He goes off to sacrifice their beloved son but doesn’t tell her. Only when she dies does he respond. Abraham cries. But what kind of tears are these? Does he cry for the life they shared? Or does he cry for all they could have shared — for the life they lived apart, alone?

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival, a celebration. The last word should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace, gratitude. Our greatest problem is not how to continue, but how to return. [The Psalmist asks], ‘How can I repay unto the Lord all His bountiful dealings with me?’ When life is an answer [to that question], death is a homecoming.”

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.