Death and Life

Emor By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 4, 1996 / 5756 | Torah Commentary

Death has been a frequent visitor this year at the Seminary, felling young and old alike, as if the assassination of Mr. Rabin on November 4 was a harbinger of things to come. Rarely have young people, so sheltered from death in our self–indulgent society, been more sorely tested. Some of the deceased, like Professors Shraga Abramson, Moshe Davis and Cantor Max Wohlberg, died in old age after long careers of lasting achievement, both in Israel and in America, including many years of teaching at the Seminary. Others were cut down in the prime of life: Professor Seth Brody, a graduate of our Rabbinical School and frequent visiting member of our faculty, by cancer, at the height of his powers, just a few years after attaining a full–time appointment at Haverford College, and Matt Eisenfeld, a second year rabbinical student at the Seminary, and his fiancee to be, Sara Duker, a graduate of Barnard College and active member of the Seminary community, by a suicide bomber on February 25 in Jerusalem, denying the world the fulfillment of their radiant promise. Each successive loss has prevented the pall from lifting.

To be sure, the deaths of Matt and Sarah, struck their fellow students most grievously. I write, though, not to tell you of the depth of our students’ suffering, but of the nobility of their mourning. I wish to share with you what they taught me about the capacity of Judaism to comfort the mourner. Normally, in the face of death, it is the life experience of adults that strengthens the young. But in this case, our students expressed their anguish in the language of Judaism with such naturalness and intensity that I relearned the ancient wisdom of how Jews confront tragedy.

First, we face it together as a community. The caring presence of others – a warm hand, a soft smile, a tight hug – helps stay the onrush of feelings of despair and abandonment. When the wound is too raw for words, only the love of another’s concern relieves the pain. How marvelous that Judaism requires the kaddish to be recited in the midst of a minyan! Would that archaic affirmation of meaning offer any solace recited away from community, awash in our loneliness?

Second, chaos is kept at bay by ritual. As we teeter at the edge, ancient practices impose a semblance of order and structure. There are rites to perform and prayers to be said that take us beyond ourselves. We are not the first to stare into the void. Even the words of comfort that we offer to the mourner are prescribed: “May God (ha–Makom – the One Who Is All–Present) comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Which to me has always meant that we do not suffer alone. Death has not singled us out nor God abandoned us.

Third, we are entitled to remonstrate with God. That is one of the functions of that vast arsenal of sacred texts at our disposal. They offer not only wisdom and consolation but also weapons of protest and subversion. We may legitimately turn them against God to express our hurt and anger. Abraham, Job and Ecclesiastes among many others preceded us in the assertion of this right to challenge God’s justice. To conduct the discourse in these terms is to preserve the relationship despite the strain.

Finally, our mourning must end and life prevail. We grieve in concentric circles of declining intensity from the period before burial, cruelly protracted for Matt and Sara, through the shiva and sheloshim (the 7 and 30 day periods after burial) to the termination of kaddish at the end of eleven months. Judaism does not allow us to become fixated on our losses or paralyzed by what lies beyond our comprehension.

As we learn in this week’s parasha, death is the ultimate source of uncleanness because it vanquishes life. Priests are bidden to keep their distance and restrict their contact with death to preclude the emergence of an Egyptian–like religion obsessed with sustaining life after death. In contrast to the civilization of the Nile, the Torah affirms at the very outset that we humans are made of dust and destined to return to it (Genesis 3:18) and pointedly avoids any speculation on the nature of the afterlife.

And at the end, the Torah pleads with us to choose life over death: “I [God] have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life– if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him (Deuteronomy 30:19–20).” Nor is it an accident that the Torah tells us so little of Moses’s death, especially not the place where he is buried.

Thus, Judaism is above all a life–affirming religion. It does not deny the reality or devastating pain of death; it just stubbornly refuses to let it warp the way we live. Over the millennia it has crafted a life support system consisting of community, ritual, sacred texts and tempered mourning which keeps our anguish in bounds. As this sad winter gives way to spring, the Seminary community has been blessed by an unusual flurry of births. I cannot fail to see in this explosion of life the defiant response of an ancient religion long tested by adversity, the same robust spirit which gave birth to Israel after the Holocaust.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Emor are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.