Thoughts to Ponder Number 34
4 Adar Rishon, 5760; February, 10, 2000

Some Perspectives on Mortality

In Devarim (14.1), the Torah warns against excessive mourning, expressing itself in a most unusual way: "You are the children of God, your God, you shall not cut yourself, nor make a bald patch between your eyes for the dead." This prohibition teaches man the correct approach towards death.

The great sage, Obadiah Sforno (Italy,1475-1550) explains this in his own unique way: The reason why one is not allowed to mourn excessively is because a more noble Relative is still alive. And since one is a child of that Relative and He is the ultimate Father, one knows that the real Parent did not die and never will die. So, if one overly grieves, it is as if one believes that one has no parents left alive. As such "absolute" mourning is not possible. (See also the Daat Baale Tosafoth.)

There is a great difference between when an adult loses his parents and when a child does. In the case of the adult, the loss is less selfish. This is due to the fact that most adults no longer depend on their parents. In that sense, the obligation of honoring ones parents becomes of a higher quality, with more dignity and altruistic intentions. There is more space for genuine interest in the parent as a unique human being of whom one happens to be a child. Once the life of a parent comes to an end and passes on to another world, there is a greater chance for contemplation about the meaning of life and the uniqueness of those who left us behind. This is the main reason for the period of shiva, the 7 days of intensive mourning following burial, when one is not allowed to work and sits low, nearly on the floor which is the reminder of all earthliness.

Death confronts us with a strange paradox. We realize that all of us have been longer dead than alive. Before we were born we were "dead" for "millions" of years. Somehow, we are better acquainted with our existence prior to life than when we find ourselves thrust quite suddenly into this world.

Real life is a journey which starts long before we come into existence. It seems to come from far and continues through experience, growth, suffering, insight and deed and then returns to its home base. There is an eternal continuum which seems to precede the existence of the individual, and the journey of life continues after death.

This world is like a busy station with many travelers coming and going. Every day, hundreds of thousands leave and travel to "home base," and, simultaneously, thousands and thousands of others arrive from that very base to spend some time at the station. If it would be possible for man to see this highway between heaven and earth, he would be surprised how heavy the daily traffic is in both directions. There are those who go on an outing, perhaps not knowing what awaits them, and those who come home, perhaps not realizing what they are leaving behind.

When confronted with death, our first reaction is consternation. We are stunned and broken. But, slowly, our feeling of shock makes room for a sensation of mystery. The mysterium magnum enters, and a new perspective makes itself known which is a kind of revelation and elevation. Suddenly our whole life which we knew so well slowly but surely gets concealed behind a great Secret. Our speech is silenced. Our understanding fails. There is only awe for the Other.

In the Torah nobody dies, rather one is "gathered to his fathers." No neshama becomes dust, and no spirit turns into ashes. It is neshamoth which compose immortal and untouchable words, create infinite art and abstract thoughts. As such the neshama is infinite. Friedrich Nietzsche said: "The final reward of the dead is to die no more." Judaism would say: the final reward of the dead is to see no death.

The halacha makes a distinction between ones mourning for deceased parents as opposed to other members of ones family. One mourns for a parent for a full year, while this is not the case with any other member of the family, not even with ones spouse.

There is something very distinctive about parents. No doubt it has to do with the fact that one can have more children, brothers or sisters and even marry another wife but one can never have other parents. They are irreplaceable. But on a deeper level, parents are the bond with earlier generations, they are our links with time past. They are our memory, and they give us the historical and emotional context of our lives. Rabbi Yitschak Hutner, z.l., once remarked that we have a full year of mourning for our parents because, unlike in the other cases where we lose family members, the loss of a parent removes us even more from the days of the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. Only through a year of mourning, i.e. of meditation and teshuva we are able to recapture Sinai.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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