I saw a particularly moving video this week. It captured an installation by the artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg that appeared on the National Mall in Washington, DC last fall. It included 143 square sections of ground in which a total of 620,000 small white flags had been planted, one flag for each of the 620,000 Americans who had died of Covid-19 as of September, 2021. (You may be aware that we are now approaching 1 million official deaths, although the actual toll is surely higher.)
The video showed people strolling through this huge field of flags, writing names of loved ones they lost and messages about them on the flags, reflecting on the immensity of grief, hugging each other and crying and trying to make sense of it all. It was quite painful and very moving. (It might have been coincidental that the installation opened to the public two days after Yom Kippur, and remained open until just after Shemini Atzeret, two days of the Jewish calendar on which we remember those whom we have lost with prayers of Yizkor, prayers of remembrance for those who are no longer with us. But maybe it was not a coincidence.)
For a long time to come, we will be trying to wrap our heads around these two years of grief and pain and loss and anxiety and sickness and death. We will continue to feel the after-effects – the economic fallout, the political consequences, the social ills – perhaps for decades.
But those whom we have lost will always be remembered. We, the Jews, are good at memory. We are especially good at navigating the moments of grief that we face; through mourning and bringing comfort; through the framework of our tradition, our liturgy, our ancient texts.
And we remember those who gave us life by completing their work on Earth, by honoring their best qualities, making them our own.
My grandfather, my mother’s father, grew up in poor circumstances. His father abandoned him and his brothers, and his mother was sickly and not capable of caring for them, so my grandfather was taken in by a foster family. He worked a couple of different jobs in his life: at various points he drove a taxi, worked as a salesman, and during the Depression he had a candy store, which he lost (according to my grandmother) because he would give away freebies to every soul who came in with a sob story.
Despite the hardships he faced, my grandfather was a sweet man who never let his circumstances bring him down. And my mother reminds me occasionally that he always complimented my grandmother after dinner. She had not always been a great cook, but no matter the quality of the meal, my grandfather, without fail, had words of praise for his wife.
It’s a small thing: consistent gratitude. Everyday thankfulness. A simple, “That was wonderful, dear! Thank you.” My grandfather knew that, although he did not have a lot, he certainly appreciated what he did have.
And it is a lesson that I carry with me, even though my grandfather passed away 16 years ago, even though the last years of his life were marked by dementia, during which he did not even recognize his own family. I try to uphold that consistent sense of being grateful for what I have.
Back in January I was at a rabbinic retreat, and learned about a so-called “story cycle” in the Talmud (Moed Qatan 28a) about ancient rabbis trying to avoid the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death. A story cycle is a collection of related stories which are collected in one place in the Talmud. Sometimes they are the same story retold multiple times with different details and elaborations in each version; sometimes they are only loosely connected with a shared theme.
Most of us probably think of the Mal’akh haMavet in the context of the Passover story, which we all reviewed a week ago for the first nights of Pesaḥ: for the tenth and final plague to which the Egyptians are subjected, the Mal’akh haMavet passes over the homes of the Israelites, on the way to take the first-born children of the Egyptians, including that of the Pharaoh himself. (That is, of course, where we get the name “Passover.”)
But the Mal’akh haMavet is a familiar character in rabbinic literature, appearing in many places. And in this story cycle, it is clear that he has a certain code: he cannot take the souls of people who are engaged in righteous acts. So, for example, Rav Ḥisda is so pious that the words of Torah never depart from his lips; he is constantly studying and reviewing and repeating our ancient holy texts. And so when the Mal’akh haMavet comes to take him, he is foiled by the continuous flow of holy words from Rav Ḥisda’s mouth. So the Mal’akh haMavet sits down on a cedar bench nearby, and the bench cracks, making a loud noise. Rav Ḥisda is momentarily distracted, pauses in his recitation of holy words, and so the Mal’akh haMavet takes his soul.
Other stories on the page make it clear that all the ancient rabbis for whom the Mal’akh haMavet comes are trying to avoid death. And even though one, Rav Naḥman, concedes that death is painless, nonetheless Rav Naḥman also adds that the living world is better, because, in his words, in the world-to-come,
אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מַאן חֲשִׁיב, מַאן סְפִין, מַאן רְקִיעַ
Rav Naḥman said to Rava, “[In the world-to-come], who is important? Who is honorable? Who is complete?”
Put another way, we are all equal in death, and the world of the dead is unremarkable. Life is where it’s happening; all of the good stuff is here on Earth, not in the afterworld.
Now that is interesting, because some religious traditions, and even some Jews, think that the afterlife is the goal. That better living in “Olam haBa,” the world-to-come, is our goal here on Earth. That the reason we keep the mitzvot, the 613 holy opportunities of Jewish life, is so that we can merit a place in Olam haBa.
So one implicit message of this passage is, “not so much.”
Truth is, normative Judaism does not have a lot to say about Olam haBa. Yes, it is certainly mentioned as a desirable destination. But let’s face it folks: the bottom line of Jewish living, of the mitzvot and our rituals and our dietary guidelines and our holidays and our prayer and our values is to ensure that we act as holy people, that we elevate the holiness in all our relationships right here on Earth, in the world of the living. We learn Torah and act on its imperatives for Olam haZeh: this world. Not for Olam haBa, the world-to-come.
To paraphrase Rav Naḥman, it is in this world that we can be important, honorable, and complete. In this world we can attain these things by valuing what is truly important, by maintaining the honor of others, by helping to complete God’s work here on Earth.
And how do we do that, exactly?
We do it by remembering.
We remember our story. We tell it over and over to our children, just as we all did one week ago at the Pesaḥ seder.
We remember our ancestors, Avraham and Sarah, Rivqah and Yitzḥaq, Raḥel and Ya’aqov and Leah, and Moshe Rabbeinu and Miriam haNevi’ah (the prophetess) and Eliyahu haNavi and on and on. We remember their values and deeds, and we act on them.
And we remember our parents and grandparents and spouses and aunts and uncles and cousins and children and teachers and friends and neighbors. We remember what they taught us. We remember what they valued. We even remember when they failed us, because we learned from those failures as well.
You know why life is better than death? Because we carry all of those things with us, and we can act on them. We take the wisdom of those who came before us to help improve ourselves, to intensify the holiness in our marriages, to teach our children to be better people, to do good works for others.
We, the living, remember those who came before us so that we can carry out the good deeds of the dead. We live to maintain their honor. We live to complete them. To express gratitude; to praise others; to be friendly and personable and affectionate; to pick up others when they fall, and occasionally to right their wrongs.
To be alive is to remember, and to act on what has been handed to us.
And so we remember, and we live for them.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / eighth day of Pesaḥ, April 23, 2022.)