A friend of mine died recently, unexpectedly, at age forty-seven. He was celebrating the end of summer, riding a bicycle with his two daughters on a bright morning when he fell over, and he was gone. There was no advanced warning, no creeping assault, no stages of preparation, no horrible diagnosis with time to adjust to the dreadful news. One minute he was riding the bike, the next minute he was on the ground.
When his youngest daughter was about to be born, my friend and his wife consulted me for spiritual support because she had a congenital defect that required neonatal surgery. They were frightened, the future uncertain. At the time, I was going through my own family health crisis, and we took comfort in each other’s presence. I did not try to offer them assurances that everything would work out all right because I had no sense that it would. I was standing on quicksand like they were, unsure when the shifting would end. For their daughter and for my husband, the crisis passed and health was restored. Time healed our wounds and we began to feel we had dodged the proverbial bullet. The trauma my family experienced from my husband’s brush with death scarred us deeply, and I’m sure my friend’s family was also profoundly impacted by their daughter’s illness. It took years for us to recover a semblance of security.
I think of the world as divided into two groups of people: those keenly aware of their tenuous grasp on mortality, and those who either never knew or have forgotten. We glide back and forth between the two liminal boundaries according to our state of mind and fortune. The music on the car radio as we drive home from a productive day lulls us into belief in our own charmed existence. It is followed by the phone call at three a.m. that jolts us to the other side.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, of Blessed Memory, wrote: “Death is a false phenomenon. What makes death unclean is that it spreads an aura of falsehood. Actually, what people call death is the opposite: an ascent into an even greater and more real life. We are plunged into the depths of small mindedness. What has placed us here? Our physical and emotional drives. These drives, gazing upon this ascent into life, interpret it as a dreadful, black phenomenon that they label: death.” (Orot HaKodesh II, p.380)
To live with awareness of death is a uniquely human condition. This awareness leads to creative achievement and the search for meaning in life. Constant fear of it crushes the soul and suppresses growth, holding us back from love and intimacy. Each of us must come to terms with the impermanence of life and the tragedy that sometimes befalls our loved ones, our neighbors, or ourselves. Our understanding of death is linked to our appreciation for life.
Psalm 90 exhorts, “Teach us, therefore, to number our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” The psalmist doesn’t seek a brain of wisdom or a heart of love; what, then, is the meaning of a heart of wisdom? A heart of wisdom does not worship at the altar of the intellect, blessing its own brain and relying upon reason to save it from insanity. A heart of wisdom is not seduced by its own emotional attractiveness, convinced that blind faith in feeling will see it through any catastrophe. A heart of wisdom submits to the inevitability of the end. It is the humble heart that recognizes its own rhythm and measures its own meter, and blesses the Creator who ordained its inception and its demise.