Printed from ChabadRM.com

Live With Death; Die With Life

Friday, 21 December, 2018 - 12:52 am

If you want to know what a bureaucracy does, suggests PJ O’Rourke, watch it when it does nothing. If you want to know what people think about life, watch them when death sticks out his calling card.

Many act like it ain’t happening. They dress the dead in tuxes and ballroom dresses and do the dead’s hair and apply them with make-up. We’re here to celebrate a life, they chirp, while the elephant in the room swishes his large head. 
 
They exchange stories of (I’m not making this up) the deceased’s delicious flanken and chicken soup (we called them Godzilla balls!) and they solemnly vow to keep the condo in Boca “because Dad loved the water”. But this ignoring of death is not simply ignorance; this ignoring speaks of a deep, silent fear: a fear of the unknown. 
 
Death does us apart -- and brings us together -- like nothing else can: when else does everyone drop everything to get ‘there’ in time or at least get there for the funeral? 
 
And if we get there in time, into a room often crowded with illness and always with sorrow, if we are lucky, there are also words, glances: exchanges. They remain a lifetime with the sons and daughters. Jacob on his deathbed blessed his children: Rembrandt, captivated by the scene, rendered it on canvas.  
 
Do not bury me in Egypt, Jacob pleads. And they listen. Bury me with my parents. And they listen. I will tell you the end of days. They listen but no words come. I will bless you. They listen and we echo their hearing. 
 
The Baal Shem Tov was five when his father and mother died in quick succession. Be afraid of nothing but the Almighty, his father told him, leaving him a legacy of love and sustenance which his son fed to many.
 
An old woman I knew was diagnosed with cancer and given a few months to live. She was neither alarmed nor distressed. I’ve lived a good life, said she, and I am old. And I’m happy; my grandchildren didn’t speak Yiddish, but my great-grandchildren do. She was no Sholom Aleichem enthusiast: as a girl she read Emile Zola. She spoke a more than serviceable English: communication was never a problem. Nor was there a generation gap: she knew her grandchildren shared her world. But you taste the world with your mother tongue and choosing a language (langue means tongue) for your newborn’s first taste, shows your love for the culture that bore that language.
 
It was an intimacy with a particular world that she wanted for her progeny. That her world, destroyed by Hitler and Stalin, should be the girsa deyankesa, the primal view, of her grandchildren. Everything we want, we want for our kids. More than a man’s vacations, more than a man’s portfolio, if you want to know a man’s dreams, if you want to know where he lives, look at what he seeks for his children.
 
Such is the legacy of the Parsha which speaks of Jacob’s death and then Joseph’s: incongruously it is called Vayechi- the parsha of life. Actually, not so incongruously. 
 
Death is a window to a world that the survivors cannot look through. It is a window to the soul of the dying that blinds us with veracity: why else do we affirm the deathbed confession and honor the dying wish?  In the face of finality the charades of life stop.
 
Death is the moment of truth that only the starkness of separation can elicit. And this moment of truth connects people and worlds. Death is the ultimate divide -- leaving us abandoned from those crossing over -- that brings us together. At death, people are their most truthful, their most alive, both the dying and the ones they are leaving. Suddenly, (often painfully but ultimately comfortingly) everyone stands exposed. The father dies and (suddenly!) the sixty year old left behind is no longer a child, just an orphan, confused by sudden adulthood. And in this void, this most living moment, a link in the chain is forged. 
 
The process exhausts us. Not for nothing does the Parsha end with chazak chazak venitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and be strengthened.
 
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