Last week’s blog about Organ Donation got me thinking about death and to what extent it matters and to whom. And the invasion of Ukraine made me wonder what is worth dying for.
I recalled a story in the Talmud about Bar Avin, who said that when a person dies, we should cry for those who are left behind and mourn their loss, not for the soul that has gone to its eternal rest”( TB Moed Katan 25b). In other words, death is painful only for those who are bereft of the love and wisdom of the departed.
Some Biblical and Talmudic opinions are that this life is a vale of tears, although that view is much more common in Christianity. The Bible says that the day we die is better than the day we are born (Ecclesiastes 7.1). On the other hand, the Bible also says that “ The dead cannot praise God, only the living can”(Psalms 115). In the Talmud, the schools of Hillel and Shamai debated the issue. And after years of discussion, they took a vote and agreed that it would indeed be better not to have been born. But then they added a coda, now that we are here, we ought to make the best of it and examine our values (TB Eruvin 13b).
Attitudes to life and death vary. Some argue that the sole purpose of religions is to help us confront the awesome and frightening moment of death. That’s a very jaundiced and inaccurate view. The Torah seems not at all concerned with another level of existence but focuses entirely on the here and now. Life and death are the bookends of human existence. We all go through these passages of time. It is what we do in between that counts and in this, some are more successful or more fortunate than others. The challenge of life is to make the most of what we do on earth, given all the constraints of genes, space, and time (and of course other human beings) for better or worse.
As for what happens after death as the Talmud says, “No eye has ever seen it other than God”(TB Brachot34b et al). The Talmud says that Rebbi Yosef the son of Rebbi Yehoshua went up to heaven and came back and claimed to have seen that those on earth who are in the top here were at the bottom up there and vice versa. But no one actually takes that literally. It is a homiletical statement rather than an empirical one. Or as Maimonides said, no one knows exactly how the World to Come, or Resurrection works. All such talk is metaphorical (The Statement on Resurrection).
The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341- 270 BCE) said that “Death is not bad, and we have no reason to fear it. Something can be bad for you only if you exist so that when a person is dead and no longer exists, death can’t be bad” Letter to Menoeceus. According to our sources, Bar Avin’s opinion was that death was not bad for the deceased (in this specific case, Ravina), for he was “at rest.” One might have expected him to say that although Ravina was deprived of the good things in life had he lived, this was more than made up for by the rewards that he was getting in the afterlife. But he didn’t say that. In both ancient and modern philosophy, there is an interesting argument that death cannot be bad for the person who has died. Indeed, Bar Avin’s eulogy reminds us that the greatest pain is felt by those who are left behind with nothing but their sighs.
Nevertheless, religions have played a major role in trying to comfort us. They tell us that death will usher us into a wonderful new world if we have been wise and good, perhaps with a hundred virgins or a host of Talmudic scholars. But if we have been bad into a horrible torture chamber with vats of boiling water and eternal flames. And all this is meant either to comfort us or scare us into behaving well. You might argue that anything that gets people to behave well is positive. Yet if it comes at the price of fear, and guilt, I believe it defeats the very purpose of life which is to enjoy and thank God or nature for the wonderful things we have been given.
What happens when we die? Do we see our whole life pass before us and regret all our mistakes? Do we see the Angel of Death? The Talmud talks about the kiss of death (TB Brachot 8a) and that it is like a hair drawn through milk. A painless process of falling gently asleep. And this is what I look forward to. The only thing I fear is the physical pain of either a prolonged violent or debilitating, de-humanizing sickness. But it is not the death itself that worries me which must be a release from the aches and pains of growing older. Otherwise, I would be terrified ever to fall asleep.
So why is suicide considered a religious error? In my youth, suicide in the English Courts was always described with the improbable formula that he or she “took his or her own life while the balance of their minds was disturbed.” Was there some test of balance? Although in Jewish Law someone who commits suicide should be denied a religious burial in theory. But this is never applied precisely because we assume that the victim will, whatever the initial reason, have repented at the last minute. In all the cases I had to deal with as a rabbi in various orthodox communities I have served in around the world, I never saw a case where someone who had committed what the courts considered as suicide was denied burial in a Jewish cemetery.
One can do nothing officially to hasten a person’s death. In extremis Jewish law allows a pain killer like morphine to be given to relieve suffering, even if a consequence will be hastening death. And perhaps psychological suffering might be included. Life comes from God, and it is up to God to decide when to take it away. one is expected to accept one’s fate whenever it comes. Yet historically Jews have martyred themselves to avoid the suffering of torture or violence.
Most of us have been privileged to live in an era of the most advanced scientific and medical discoveries and more people have access to the pleasures of life than ever before. Life is beautiful most of the time. Maimonides pours scorn on those who say there is more evil than good in the world (though he did not live through the Holocaust). But generalizations are never helpful when it comes to human suffering. Even a bad cold can seem like hell to someone suffering from one. Shakespeare was drawn to suicides. Neither Juliette nor Cleopatra thought that a life without the man they loved was not worth living. But then he was no rabbi!
Most human beings overwhelmingly cling to life for two reasons. One is the almost instinctual urge for survival which makes us cling to life for as long as possible. The other is the knowledge that those we love and leave behind will suffer the pangs of loss and regret. In the end, as Bar Avin said we should not cry for the dead but for those who are left behind. In the words of the title of Samuel Butler’s novel, death is “ The Way of All Flesh.”
As for Ukraine
When a country loses prestige as Germany did after World War 1 or Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it festers and leads to fascism. China too is a fascist State deeply resentful at being regarded as a failure for so long. And fascism leads to violence, aggression, and suppression. America is incapable of any moral authority and has lost its clout. So welcome to a new era, a world of bullies. This was not the end of history but a repetition of it. Another kind of death.