Rabbi's Rosh Hashannah 2004 Sermon: On Death


Rabbi's Rosh Hashannah 2004 Sermon: On Death

Subject: Rabbi's Rosh Hashannah 2004 Sermon: On Death

NOTE: Many who suffered losses this year indicated that they found much comfort in this message. There were so many request for copies, that I opted to just post it here, rather than mail it. JLS

My subject for today is death. In this talk, I am not dealing with the tragic deaths of innocent babies and children, nor am I dealing with those who languish in comas or with advanced Alzheimers for years. That is a different topic, for another time.

My topic today is death after a life well-lived. It is still a tragic loss in the lives of the survivors. However, for an individual and for the survivors, death is a natural punctuation point on a life.

This morning we read from the creation story. On the sixth day of creation of creation, when all higher order land-based life was created, the text says, "God saw all that God had made, "ve-hi-nei tov me-od", usually translated "and behold it was very good."

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Meier's Bible read differently. His said: "God saw all that God had made, "ve-hi-nei tov mot (not tov me-od)", which translated "and behold death was good."

We are told that up to the time Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the prohibited tree, they were immortal.

There is a certain logic that death needs to be. Our Yizkor service says (GOR pg.484), "If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overturned, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others -- could the answer be in doubt?"

Even if we, in all honesty, answered -- yes, there is a doubt, -- we are still faced with conflicting mitsvot. We are told, "be fruitful and multiply." We must somehow make space for the next generation and death is one way of doing that.

Now I've thought about the immortality issue from the perspective of a healthy, vigorous person -- and I am in no hurry to complete my earthly time. But I have also seen the very old, the very sick and the very feeble, for whom death is an honest-to-goodness reward.

A story is told about an elderly couple who pass away and discover heaven. Everything is perfect and he turns to her and says, "if it weren't for all those vitamins and oat bran, we could have been here years ago!"

One of the problems of death is that we don't know what happens when we die and that's probably good. If we knew it was great, we might want to hurry our existence out of this world. If it were horrible, we might live our lives in constant terror. The uncertainty of life is both a blessing and a curse. Studies have indicated that there is a stressful uncertainty with death. Those who believe powerfully in Orthodox spiritual traditions, Catholicism, Evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews and Atheists have the lowest stress levels. Atheists no they are going no where. Everybody else knows they are going somewhere! Those of us who are liberal or even agnostic have doubts which elevate stress.

So how did people die? Initially, the Midrash tells us, people just died. A person would be walking along and sneeze and drop dead on the spot. The sneeze was the soul departing, which is why we say, "God bless you" following a sneeze. Namely, we are encouraging the soul to return to the body.

Only at the end of Genesis are we told that a messenger is sent to Joseph saying "Jacob, your father, is sick." The conclusion they draw is that Jacob was the first person to experience sickness as a prelude to dying. The sickness associated with death may also be a blessing. It allows each of us an amount of time to put our affairs in order and to make our good-byes. Too many people find themselves quoting Woodie Allen who said, "I don't mind dying. As long as I don't have to be there." The end of life is not to be missed. A good Jewish life demands our presence from birth -- to and including death.

After death the Kaddish gives survivors a perspective: Let God be glorified and sanctified throughout the world; let the world become a perfect place soon in YOUR lifetime and let us say: Amen. be-cha-yei-chon u-ve-yo-mei-chon u-ve-cha-yei de-chol beit yis-ra-eil.

Notice how the text of the Kaddish turned from third person talking about God to 2nd person plural, namely -- talking to the others present. The message being given is: God. I don't understand why You did this to me, but I accept it as part of the overall price of living and will continue worshipping you. And to the rest of you present, the messianic Age did not arrive soon enough to help my loved one, but my wish for you is that the messianic age will happen before each of you is faced with death.

This spills over into how the medical community deals with life. We work to preserve it, but mortality is the price of life whether long or short.

In short, for a well lived life, mortality and even sickness can be a blessing. "Va-yar E-lo-him et kol a-sher a-sa, -- God saw all that God had made, "ve-hi-nei tov mot, and in the ultimate end, death is good."

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