Do we truly understand the value of life? The value of our lives? Do we really appreciate the gift we have been given, while we still have it?
One of the things that the pandemic has taught is just how frail we all are. Think about this for a moment: millions of people around the world taken too soon; young, healthy people suffering from virus effects long after regaining health, the so-called “Covid long-haulers;” the economic fallout – the jobs lost, the industries disrupted, the evictions and lives put on hold, and so forth. All of this due to a tiny piece of RNA wrapped in a protein shell. This microscopic thing, which can barely be called alive, has caused so much damage. It is hard to wrap your brain around.
And the fallout that it has caused is primarily due to fear of death. We have spent 14 months staying away from people – from loved ones, from strangers in the supermarket, even passing people on sidewalks (I have found myself walking out into the road, perhaps unsafely so, many times) – out of respect, yes, but more essentially out of fear.
And with good reason, of course. 14 months later, nearly 600,000 of our fellow citizens are confirmed to have succumbed to that strand of RNA, and perhaps the figure is even closer to one million. Based on CDC statistics, this virus is about as deadly, per capita, as heart disease and cancer, and far more deadly than auto accidents and Americans with guns. Somehow, however, death seemed so much more close this year, so much more present.
And we fear death.
A congregant who recently lost his grandfather (not due to COVID-19) asked me for suggestions on the topic of books that deal with death from a Jewish perspective. I came up with a few myself, but I also posed the question to fellow Conservative rabbis, and one suggested the 1997 memoir by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, a book that was on best-seller lists for four years. Probably some of you have read it. I never had, until I stumbled across a copy in one of the Beth Shalom libraries a few weeks back. I figured, maybe I should read this.
In case you do not know, the book is about Brandeis sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, with whom Albom had a close relationship while studying there as an undergraduate. Upon graduation, Albom wandered off into the world to seek his fortune, and did not stay in touch with Schwartz. Instead, he worked hard at building a career as a sports journalist, until one evening he was watching Nightline, and he saw his old professor and friend being interviewed by Ted Koppel (remember Ted Koppel?) about dying of a terminal disease. Morrie had ALS, and was at that point already unable to move his legs. Albom reconnected with him, and then went to visit him at his home outside of Boston over a series of 14 Tuesdays. During each of his visits, Morrie Schwartz unloaded wonderful bits of wisdom – about death, yes, but all the more so about life.
Although Albom is Jewish and so was Schwartz, the book is not really drawn from traditional Jewish ideas about death. While there is one brief moment in which Schwartz, a self-declared agnostic, looks heavenward and suggests that his life is in God’s hands (“I’m bargaining with Him up there now,” he says, p. 163), there is otherwise no reference to any of the things that Jews associate with death and mourning. Nonetheless, it is a very Jewish book, primarily because Morrie’s approach to dying of a terminal illness is to talk about it, to make Albom and the reader aware of their own mortality.
That is what we do. We are not only the people of the book; we are also the people of the schmooze. (Most of you know that I grew up in WASPy, stiff-upper-lip New England; I have never been much of a talker. Somehow, going to rabbinical school changed all that.)
You might make the case that Morrie’s essential argument is that we have no need to fear death, because we are all going to die. Death is an essential feature of life. During one of their early visits, Morrie offers one of his most impactful statements. “The truth is, Mitch, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” (p. 82) What he means by “learning how to die” is to be prepared for it, to be aware that it is coming. Once you have done that, you can appreciate life in a much more complete way.
I became aware just this weekend, through an article in the New York Times about a nun, that Catholics have a practice known as “memento mori,” Latin for “remembering death.” The idea is to “intentionally think about your own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future.” Sister Theresa Alethia Noble of the Daughters of St. Paul convent in Boston has made it her mission to raise the profile of this somewhat obscure practice. Her argument is that we are too focused on the superficial and the inauthentic, the “bright and shiny” things that are constantly occupying space on our screens and in our consciousness.
The article notes that Buddhist mindfulness meditation tries to achieve the same thing, and Morrie Schwartz also invokes the Buddhists.
But we, the Jews, have our own traditions that keep our mortality in front of us on a regular basis.
You may never have thought about this in these terms, but that is what we do every time we observe Yizkor, when we take a few moments to recall those whom we have lost. One of the traditional things we say during Yizkor are the words from Psalm 16:
שִׁוִּ֬יתִי ה’ לְנֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִ֑יד כִּ֥י מִֽ֝ימִינִ֗י בַּל־אֶמּֽוֹט׃ לָכֵ֤ן ׀ שָׂמַ֣ח לִ֭בִּי וַיָּ֣גֶל כְּבוֹדִ֑י אַף־בְּ֝שָׂרִ֗י יִשְׁכֹּ֥ן לָבֶֽטַח׃
Adonai is always before me, at my right hand, lest I fall. Therefore I am glad, made happy, though I know that my flesh will lie in the ground forever.
As ironic as this statement sounds – happiness and death in the same verse – it is absolutely the feeling one gets in reading Tuesdays with Morrie. Teacher and student are united in their joy of connecting and reconnecting, even though one will soon be gone. They enjoy food together; they exchange powerful hugs.
And every time we respond to one reciting the Mourner’s Qaddish, we are doing the same thing. The text of the Qaddish is not even about death, but even though it is an essential part of mourning, it promises life and joy in our praise of God. And every time we celebrate any life cycle event – berit milah, baby naming, bat/bar mitzvah, wedding, etc., we are reminded that life is a cycle – a cycle of joy and grief and loving and loss and thriving and languishing and beginning and ending.
Why is a Jewish wedding ring a perfect, simple circle, with no stone? Because life is a circle, one in which we all experience all of those beginnings and endings every single day, as we wind our way around.
Elsewhere, Morrie adds, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” (p. 52) As we turn around and around, the way we make our lives full, the way we fill in that circle, is by giving out love, and maybe getting some of it back.
Death is always there. We hear it intoned in our rituals. We bring comfort to those who are approaching death, and when they are gone we are there for those who mourn. We know that we can be happy today, because we also know that there is an endpoint. And we will be remembered by those to whom we gave love.
Perhaps one of the most striking lessons that Morrie Schwartz offers, and one which living a life committed to Judaism also gives us, is the following:
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” (p. 43)
Jewish lifecycle events, Jewish holidays, Jewish ritual and song and story and text and halakhah and customs, are primarily focused on connecting us to each other and offering us meaning. While we know where we are headed, we understand that the most important thing that we can do before we get there is to connect, and to re-connect, and to love. That is our purpose; that is what gives our lives meaning.
As we emerge from this pandemic, let us not only remember those whom we have lost, but let us also recommit ourselves to living better, to finding meaning, to engaging with the words of our tradition, to loving more.
That is how we may truly appreciate the gift of life.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavuot, 5/18/2021.)