Omer Day Sixteen
There are two faces toward death--one is fear and the other is acceptance. We have seen them both.
The first look--fear--I saw in the eyes of my father three months before he died. He was in poor health, not getting any help, and in an irrational moment we had a stupid fight about whether or not I was dressed appropriately for a family event we were going to. I was a sophomore in college and I certainly wasn't backing down. At the end of our fight, as the smoke cleared, we stared at each other and without being able to put it into words, I knew I was seeing the eyes of the man who was afraid of his own death. He was gone, by heart attack, within 90 days.
I didn't understand it at the time but a couple years later when speaking to a mentor he told me of a similar experience he had with his dad. And gave me the language to understand "the look."
The second look I've seen as a rabbi when sitting beside terminal patients who know they are going to die. And though they don't *want* to die, they are also facing it with a transcendent truth and equanimity that is profound and inspiring. Recently, one patient asked me for a Jewish prayer to accept her condition and I recited Psalm 121 in English and then in Hebrew.
"A Song for the Ascents
I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of heaven and earth.
God will not let your foot slip; your Protector will not sleep.
Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
The Eternal is your Protector, your shade at your right hand.
The sun will not harm you by day nor the moon by night.
The Eternal will keep you from all evil; God will guard your soul.
The Eternal will preserve your going out and your homecoming, from this time forth, now and forever."
As I looked at her, listening to the words, I saw her look off into the distance and it appeared as if she had, for a moment, transcended the body, the cancer, the intravenous fluids, the catheter, and she was in another place of going out and coming home.
I held her hand and we talked about courage more than faith--but both came up, to be sure. It felt like the right balance.
Psalm 121 was my grandma's favorite, a Psalm she too could recite from memory and likely did to calm her own soul, which had inhabited the earth for nearly 100 years. She transcended the murder of her husband in 1939, never dated or remarried, and so tragically yet beautifully she was forever looking up to the mountains. She lived with dignity for nearly a century, waiting patiently to go home.
I was thinking about the poetry that must have been written in the desert between Egypt and Sinai--the words and expressions that surely anguished the people as they made their way to a moment in time that could never have anticipated--a covenantal apocalypse of transmitted duty and law.
Which writer in the desert knew what the Law would really do?
"God's precepts are right, delighting the heart; the commandments of the Eternal are pure, giving light to the eyes." (Psalm 19.9)
Surely people died along the way between Egypt and Sinai--people who knew slavery, tasted freedom, but never got to the "end." But what is the end? Where? And for whom?
The fearless gaze at death teaches that on a certain level there is no beginning and no end. There is only transcendent existence.
Going out and coming home, now and forever.