18 May 2009

The Beginning of Wisdom

Death is all around us, all the time.

This knowledge, according to the Sages, is the beginning of wisdom. For instance, how soon after Adam and Eve were created was the reality of death introduced? Practically immediately: Genesis 2.7, the human has the breath of God breathed into him. Verse 17, God says, "but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die."

Well that didn't take long.

In Pirke Avot, Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said, "Be exceedingly humble in spirit, for the hope of earthly man is but decay."

While Judaism favors an open-eyed confrontation with death, American culture tends toward a more sterile approach. And arguably, as media continues it's assault on our sense to stay "current" (no greater life force than currency, in both senses of the term, right?) we might consider ways to ease our foot off the pedal and slow into an understanding that can teach some of this timeless wisdom.

Our neighbor Jane Brody has a new book out: Jane Brody's Guide to the Great Beyond. In that smart and clear way that she writes, she helps the reader grasp what the reader would rather avoid: You shall die. "You can--you must, for your own sake and the sake of those you love--help to change the culture of denial and avoidance to one of acceptance and preparation. You and your heirs will be glad you did." It practically reads like an advertisement for wisdom! It's a really good book. You should read it. And Jane will read from her book at CBE on June 17 at 7.30 pm.

It made me think about how we Reform Jews deal with death, doctrinally. Personally, in my own daily prayer, I find the second paragraph of the Amidah to be quite powerful when offered as a mediation on God's power: "Your might, Eternal, is boundless. You give life to the dead; great is your power to save." For centuries, this was one of Judaism's doctrinal efforts at positing resurrection of the dead, a key teaching since Pharisaic times. The later rabbis maintained this belief while employing a key tool, metaphor, to engage Jews in the notion that the dead remain "alive" with us in a variety of ways beyond the body and the world as we know it.

The early Reform Jews of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1830, summarized it this way: "I believe with perfect faith that the soul of man is breathed into him by God and is therefore immortal." Ergo, God gives life to the dead, continually.

Other Reform rationalists, notably Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, excised this line from his prayerbook and so it was removed from all prior Reform Movement prayerbooks for more than 150 years, until the publication of Mishkan Tefilah, where God giving life to the dead has returned, albeit parenthetically, as an "option." A hedged bet on the immortality of the soul. Too bad. I sing out when I lead. Some join, some don't. I'd like to know what people think.

Anyway, after drashing along these lines Friday night, the Shabbat proceeded as usual. Sunday I rode my bike into Greenwood Cemetery and toured around with my nine year old, who faced mortality of a teacher this year and has been struggling in a might and healthy way with the issue all year. We read graves, climbed up and down the beautiful hills, took pictures next to Leonard Bernstein's grave and sang a couple songs from West Side Story, and enjoyed the view of New York City from Battle Hill. After, on our way down the hill and toward our bikes, we spied two parakeet feather in the grass. We collected them, turned them in the light this way and that to see their colors, and headed home. She shared with Rachel the highlight: sewing machine inventor Elias Howe's homage to his dog Fannie, also buried in the family plot. The poem is beautiful and she said, "I'm going to write one for Nathan (her dog), when he dies."

The matter-of-fact way in which the young poet comforted me greatly. The poem for a 19th century dog, laid to rest in Brooklyn, inspiring new words for a very much alive 21st century dog, in open-eyed preparation for the inevitable.


Nah. The beginning of wisdom.


DPGreenberg said...

In my opinion, Dylan Thomas offered the best Torah on death:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Andy Bachman said...

Well said. In 1997, we traveled to Wales and visited Dylan Thomas' grave. No question it was a great pilgrimage to make. The grave, a simple white cross in St. Martin's Churchyard in Laugharne, is really beautiful. When we were out in Wisconsin in April, I got a call from my friend Jon, who we traveled to Wales with back then. He was calling from Laughrane, to say hello. And the call conjured the memory, the image, of that white cross up against the grass. It reminded of ways in which words and images can take hold in the mind, timelessly.