Judaism and Death
I have just had to try to comfort a family devastated by the loss of middle-aged siblings, barely months apart, after long debilitating illnesses and decline. It is so hard to see suffering, the living and the dying. For me it is made harder still by the desperation of those who seek any and all kinds of pseudo-religious, superstitious charms and promises that the well- meaning and not-so-well-meaning promise will do what medicine cannot.”Ž
The inevitability of death makes the end no less hard to bear. The loss, the hole in one’s heart, the loneliness remain forever. Only sleep, distraction, or occupation gives us any respite. We know there’s no life without death. But the unpredictability and illogicality of how and when it strikes adds a cruelty that most humans find hard to cope with.
If we were purely rational beings we should not cry. If we believe in the idea of soul, a spark of the Divine in each one of us, what then could be better for that spark than to return to its Heavenly source, escaping all the travails of the physical world? And if we believe that we just die, the lights go out, then what is there to feel sorry about in that other person’s eternal sleep? We who are left behind cry because we feel deprived of love, wisdom, or support. But that surely is about us, not the dead. We weep for ourselves. We mourn and pay respect to the person who has died.
We ask “why” when we know precisely why. We know full well about diseases and why some people are more susceptible than others or inherit certain sets of genes. Any doctor can explain the causes of death. We know why the earth moves or tsunamis strike or rivers overflow. We also know that if we take risks we are more likely to put ourselves in danger. We know why a drunk or sleepy driver loses control of his vehicle or why a jet engine fails. We know why humans do terrible things and often kill innocents. But the question really is, “Why is this happening now, to me?” Or better, “What should I do about it?”
God has a purpose for everything, we are told, and yet we cannot know the Mind of God. Why does a child die in the womb or minutes after birth? Did it do anything to deserve it? And if its role was to impact its bereaved parents, can there not be a more productive way to teach humans lessons than by going through the whole process of pregnancy for nothing?
Why do the good suffer and the bad prosper? None of the answers satisfy. Only Rav Yannai had the honesty to admit that “we simply do not have the answers as to why the wicked are in peace or the righteous suffer” (Avot 4.15). “The world functions according its own rules”(Avodah Zara 54b). But still we wonder why God did not intervene in so many tragedies.
We humans need to believe we have done our best to leave no stone unturned, to try. We scour the world for mystical cures and charms. We even pay for strangers to pray for us. We feel we must be active, because otherwise we are even more aware of our helplessness.
Others try to comfort us with words that often make it worse. We hear such vapid clichés from the well-meaning as, “We are only given as much to bear as we are capable of.” Go tell that to a suicide victim. Some tell us what they have no right to tell us, that it will all be OK, that God will answer our prayers, that this secret formula or that prayer or blessing will work. It might, or it might not. We have no way of knowing the boundary line between toiling in vain and trying to reverse what is decided. Is it better to tell someone to accept the Heavenly decree, or should we give hope for as long as possible even if it is false hope?
The pain of loss is so confusing that people who never, ever considered themselves religious suddenly turn to prayers and blessings and charms and names. They have nothing else to turn to, the scientists having told them the score. Yet scientists can be wrong too, and the power of the human spirit can overcome a lot. But not everything.
Illness and death are not to be welcomed. But we can learn from every bad thing that happens to us. We can learn to appreciate what we have. Religion does not give us answers. God remains inscrutable. But it does give us framework, rituals, communities, support structures, and discipline that all help us cope with whatever comes our way. Actually, psychology supposedly aims at the same thing. The only response can be, “You are here. You are alive. So use your gift of life and do not waste it.” But go tell that to someone in pain.
The hardest part of being a religious functionary is, in my experience, dealing with those who have suffered loss. First comes shock. Then there is anger against God or clergy or anyone handy, and finally the adjustment. The Talmud says it takes a year, this adjusting to loss. And we, the public face of religion, are expected to talk, to use words, to ignore the lessons of Job’s mourners who sat in silence waiting for him to open the conversation. We should remain silent, just hug, support, and love.
Our religious customs offer us a way forward. Not answers, but ways of coping. We, the community, gather around to express our love and our support. We busy ourselves with doing, we busy the mourners with distractions, and we have ritual that insists on indulging our grief, before we start the long slog towards getting back to the demands of life, the needs of the living. Sometimes, like Jacob, we “refuse to be comforted,” and we think we will take our pain down to the grave. But we are resilient, we humans, and we cope. We try to embrace the blessing of life instead of returning to the answerless past. And if we do, then only in our dreams do we revisit our loss and suffer again.