Over the past two weeks two friends of mine passed away. One was a student of mine who was raised in my synagogue in Monsey, New York, and went on to become a fine Torah scholar and teacher. He was but 52 when a heart attack took him. A second friend was a distinguished rabbi of a leading rabbinical family who died after being comatose for a few weeks after being hit by a vehicle. He was a person of years and experience, clever and efficient in all ways.
Death is almost always an unwelcome guest and certainly usually an inconvenient one as well. Our mortality, which is our reality, constantly haunts us. The challenge is not to allow that reality to so affect our lives that we become obsessed with it to the point that we are depressed, frightened and non-productive. The Torah in its famous statement has advised us to always choose life. By that the Torah meant that in spite of all of the blows, losses and tragedies that are unavoidable in human existence, we must always choose life to continue to fulfill our purpose on this earth.
Resilience, looking forward and not backward, not dwelling on what might have been but rather on what may yet be, is the key component of a Jewish personal and national existence. Dealing with the reality of our mortality and yet living life to its fullest in a productive and spiritual manner is the purpose of all Jewish tradition and study.
In Judaism, human mortality is tempered by the belief in the immortality of our souls. Though there is no specific superficial mention of this concept in the Torah's text, the rabbis of the Talmud have brought numerous proofs and support to the idea from a careful examination of words and juxtaposition of words in that text. The Talmud saw our existence in this world as naturally being a temporary one but that eternity and heavenly judgment await us after our physical demise. The phrase that is used to describe this transition from earthly living to the eternal realm of the soul is "that one strips away one form of existence and assumes another form of existence."
Though there are numerous metaphors that exist in talmudic and rabbinic literature as to how this other form of existence looks, no definite and unanimous description is given to us except that it is purely spiritual and related to the soul's connection with the Creator. Nevertheless, the very belief in the immortality of the soul is one of the great ideas and comforts of Judaism and Jewish life. Death is not a black hole that consumes all. Rather life is our opportunity to gain immortality and eternity. This infuses life with a greater purpose than merely physical gain and pleasure. It gives our behavior here in this world cosmic importance and eternal value. Thus life becomes doubly important, for the consequences of our behavior reach beyond time and space and this earth and its vicissitudes.
We all pray and hope for long life and healthy years. Length of life is a relative value. King Solomon in Ecclesiastes refers to "days that are no longer desirable." He also mentions there that length of life is not necessarily an absolute value. "Even if a human lives a thousand years" there is little gain for that type of longevity. It should be noted that Solomon himself, according to Jewish tradition, lived for only 52 years.
The quest for immortality lies deep within all of us. We all have a desire not to be forgotten by later generations and descendants. Much of the pursuit of fame and honor is in essence a pursuit of immortality and the remembrance of later generations. Monuments and graves are part of this desire to be eternally remembered even when we are no longer here.
But again the Torah warns us "not to turn to the dead." The Torah is firmly planted in life, in the here and now, in its never ending challenges and problems, achievements and struggles. It allows us no room for morbidity and depression. God is to be served in this world in happiness and purpose. The reality of the human condition is well known and omnipresent to us. But it is not to be permanently dwelled upon for otherwise life can never progress and inspire. We should always remember to "choose life."
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.