The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that will be published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from HA’AZINU. While I generally avoid sermons, I include this one because of Maimonides’ teaching in the last paragraph.
Reflections on Death
Chapters 32 and 33 of Deuteronomy, like Genesis 49, Exodus 15, and Numbers 23 and 34, are poetic expositions and, in our biblical portion, contain Moses’ final warnings to the Israelites just prior to his death. In them, we find verses that can be interpreted in multiple ways. I will focus on one that causes us to think of death.
Deuteronomy 32:4 contains a statement that was chosen to be included in the prayers recited at a Jewish burial service. It reads: “The Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful God without iniquity, righteous and upright is He.” The mourners and all those gathered at the cemetery are being assured with these words that, although they grieve the loss of their loved one, and they cannot understand, and may even be angry at the dispensation of divine justice, it is a fundamental principle that we should trust that God is just and righteous, even if we do not understand His ways. And if we fall into despair, we should look to God as our “Rock”—our source of strength, our source of comfort.
The cemetery is an appropriate place in which to reflect on the meaning of life and death. Here we are greeted by the irrefutability of our own mortality. We consider the brevity of life and think of what we will leave behind and whether the years we spent on earth, the time God gave us, has been spent productively, decently, and respectably, in our eyes and “in the eyes” of God.
The cemetery is called beit ha’kevarot, “the burial house,” in Hebrew, but strangely enough also beit ha’chaim, “a house of the living,” to remind us that death does not destroy the memories of those left behind. There is, in fact, more than one kind of immortality.
We have, for example, an “immortality of influence.” There are those whom we have guided, advised, mentored, and counseled; there are organizations in which we may have played a role; there is family we have loved and whose members may remember us as role models. We may pass away, but our deeds live on in the lives of the people we influenced.
There is also, of course, “a biological immortality,” if we are blessed with a family. We all carry the genes of our forebears, and our descendents will carry our genes, giving us life beyond our lives.
Finally, many are convinced that there is “immortality of the soul,” a “life beyond life,” and that death is merely a transformation from one kind of life to another. That is why a cemetery is also called a beit olam, “an eternal house,” for while it houses the body, it releases the soul to an eternal afterlife. Since “God is just,” and it would be unjust to treat the wicked in the same manner as the pious, many are convinced that the ultimate divine retribution—reward and punishment—is meted out in this eternal world.
Some people feel queasy talking about death. They don’t even make a “will,” for fear that it will hasten their demise. There are people who walk out of the synagogue when the Yizkor memorial services are being conducted if their parents are still alive, superstitiously feeling that it may impact on their longevity. Actually, as stated, this is a superstition; rabbis have stated that Jews may remain in the synagogue when the memorial Yizkor is recited. They can even participate by reciting prayers in memory of deceased relatives or friends, or for those who perished in the Holocaust, or for those who were killed while serving in the Israeli army.
The root of Yizkor is zakor, “remember.” It is a time to recall not only our loved ones who have died, but also a time to recognize our mortality, to think about the quality of our lives and how they may be improved, and to remember that, as long as we are alive, there is always the possibility to change the course of our lives for the better. God’s work is “perfect,” but ours is not. Striving for perfection should be the goal to which we are constantly committed, day in and day out.
The Bible informs us that when Moses died, he was buried, but “no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6). What message might our rabbis be conveying by telling us (Ethics of the Fathers 5:9) that Moses’ grave was created during the twilight before the first Shabbat of Creation?
Many people take the statement “created at twilight” as a miracle, but Maimonides understands it to mean that the events listed as being “created at twilight” seem to be miracles, but they are actually only natural occurrences, part of the natural order, part of the laws of nature, like everything that was created during the six days of creation. Thus, as special as Moses was, he was buried just like everyone else.