Last January, I wrote about Michelle Holstein, who had battled cancer for ten years (“Laughing With Cancer”). She did so with courage, grace and humor. Regrettably, the Malach HaMavet—the Angel of Death—cannot be put off forever. Last Tuesday, Michelle died. She was fifty.
We all share the same sad stories. A cousin of mine died of leukemia at age twelve. A cousin’s brother-in-law succumbed to the same disease at nineteen. My fraternity brother Howie Schnabolk was killed in Vietnam at 25. A client died in a car crash at 27. Other friends and relatives also died too early.
How do we cope? We start by mourning. It’s important to face our sadness and our fears. Then we live. We love, care, thrill, discover and laugh—above all, laugh. Not just for ourselves but also for those we’ve lost.
Does heaven offer consolation? For many Christians and Muslims, yes. For Jews, not so much. The Torah mentions Sheol, the place where the dead go. It’s underground, but that’s all we know. What do the dead do there? The Torah doesn’t say.
Centuries after the Torah was written, the Rabbis absorbed concepts of heaven and hell from Christians. But Rabbinic Judaism offers diverse positions on the afterlife and remains light on specifics. Most Jews doubt there’s a place where the good sprout wings and play harps, and the bad suffer fiery torment.
Prominent is the Jewish practice of providing the dead with continuing life through memory. At the conclusion of each worship service, mourners mention the names of their departed and say the Kaddish prayer. (In Reform practice, the entire congregation joins with them.) Kaddish never mentions death. Rather, it praises God. Saying Kaddish acknowledges the Creator of life and enables us to deal with perhaps the most worrisome aspect of death—being forgotten
When I join with mourners then or at memorial services, I think of my father Morris and my mother Blanche. Also of my Aunt Anne and Uncle Moe Horowitz. I say their names on their yorzheits—the anniversaries of their deaths—before reciting Kaddish for them. I hope my children will say Kaddish for me.
Which brings me to my own death. I anticipate being around for some time. My health is great. But this July, I turn seventy. That’s the span of life enumerated in the 90th Psalm. This milestone has had me thinking about my accomplishments (few) and failures (many). I haven’t enjoyed the process, and I’ll make more of a celebration of reaching 70–1/2, the milestone past and my days less weighted with self-reflection.
I’ll also continue thinking about the Talmud’s (Shabbat 153a) guidance that we repent one day before our death. Since we never know when our last day will be, we should repent each day. Our lives may not be longer, but they’ll be better.
Death is inevitable. Memory is strong. Here’s to those who’ve gone before us, including the men and women who gave their lives for the United States. May we never forget them. And may we repent each day so that others will have no cause to forget us.
I’ll be taking off the next two weeks. A new post will appear on June 13.
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