How to return: Heschel on death (in the season of teshuvah)
September 02, 2011
I've just read the most remarkable essay. It was assigned for my Issues of Sage-ing in Hashpa'ah class, but it feels to me like the perfect reading for the beginning of Elul, the beginning of the journey toward the Days of Awe when our liturgy will call us to consider life and death.
The essay is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, and it's called "Death as Homecoming." (The essay is published in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.) Just think about that title for a moment. Death as homecoming. What does that evoke for you? Can you imagine your own death this way, not as an ending but as a coming-home? Heschel writes:
The Hebrew Bible calls for concern for the problem of living rather than the problem of dying. Its central concern is not, as in the Gilgamesh epic, how to escape death, but rather how to sanctify life.
That's such an important distinction, for me. Of course I can understand the inclination to try to escape death. I can understand the feeling that life is too short, that one wants more. It's a great mythic narrative, the attempt to escape or cheat death. But that's not the Hebrew Bible's way, and it's not Judaism's way. Let death be what it is; what really matters is whether and how we sanctify our time in life.
Our existence carries eternity within itself. "He planted life eternal within us." Because we can do the eternal at any moment, the will of God, dying too is doing the will of God. Just as being is obedience to the Creator, so dying is returning to the Source.
Death may be a supreme spiritual act, turning oneself over to eternity... Death is not sensed as a defeat but as a summation, an arrival, a conclusion.
(The quote about life eternal is from the blessing we recite when we are called up to the Torah. After the Torah has been read, we say "Blessed are You, Adonai, Who has given us a Torah of truth and planted eternal life within us; blessed are You, Adonai, giver of the Torah.") I keep turning Heschel's words over in my mind like a pebble between my fingers: our existence carries eternity within itself. Being is obedience, and dying is return.
Death as homecoming. Of course, it's a homecoming we can't begin to understand. I've been thinking about this lately -- between one holy opportunity to participate in taharah (preparing for burial the body of someone who has died) and two holy opportunities for funerals -- and ultimately I bump up against the mystery of what can't be known.
Surviving after death, we hope, is surviving as a thought of God. [...] Death, what follows death, is a mystery defying imagination. Facing it, our language is silence. Yet while the body descends into the grave, trust remains, hope persists.... This is the hope that in dying I become a seed and that after I decay I am born again. Must the self remain the same rather than become the seed of a new self, a new being?
I love his formulation that surviving after death means surviving as a thought of God. Our liturgy teaches us that God is perennially speaking creation into being; Heschel seems to be saying here that after we die, we live on in God's consciousness. Unspoken, but present as part of the One. There's a hint of gilgul / the wheel of reincarnation here, too: in dying one becomes the seed of a new self, a new being. But unlike in eastern systems of karma (in my limited understanding thereof), Heschel isn't arguing that we need to behave in this life in a manner which will influence our next incarnation. We act righteously in this life not because it will earn us a better place next time around, but because this life is precisely what we have. The world to come is whatever it is; this life is where we do the work, because it is the work to be done.
Life here is where partnership abides between God and man. With death, man surrenders his freedom, and only God's will is done. The soul is receptive, there is no room for freedom. [...] Life here and now is the task. Every moment can be an achievement.
Again and again he returns to the theme of life here on earth. This life, the one we know: this is where we can be in covenant. This is where we can be righteous. This is where we can take action, can turn toward God, can exercise our free will by turning our lives in the right direction. Once we die, we're no longer in that kind of relationship with the living or with our Creator. This life is what matters. This life is the task at hand.
And the secret of spiritual living is in the sense for the ultimacy of each moment, for its sacred uniqueness, for its once-and-for-allness. It is this sense that enables us to put all our strength into sanctifying an instant by doing the holy.
The ultimacy of each moment. Take a breath: this moment, right here, is all there is. This is everything! The whole of creation came into being in order that you might have this moment, right here, right now. And that is always true. This one moment is always where God is, where our connection with God is. Not in some dreamt-of future, not in the "world to come," but right here, right now.
Things of space vanish. Moments of time never pass away. Time is the clue to the meaning of life and death. Time lived with meaning thus is a disclosure of the eternal.
Reading this I think of Heschel's point, in his glorious short volume The Sabbath, that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time. Time is eternal. Everything physical will eventually perish: our homes, our bodies, even this universe in which we are contained. But time lived with meaning allows us a glimpse of the eternal, a glimpse of God.
I'll share one more quote from Heschel, returning again to his theme of the need to be conscious while we're here:
Unless we cultivate sensitivity to the glory while here, unless we learn how to experience a foretaste of heaven while on earth, what can there be in store for us in life to come? The seed of life eternal is planted within us here and now. But a seed is wasted when placed on stone, into souls that die while the body is still alive.
The greatest problem is not how to continue but how to exalt our existence. [...] Our greatest problem is not how to continue but how to return.
Can you see why this seems so incredibly apropos to me as we begin Elul, as we take on the work of teshuvah, repentance / return? What matters is this life, which is always finite and yet always aims us toward the infinite. But we need to connect with that infinite while we are finite. We need to truly live while we're alive. We need to exalt our existence. Not to live forever, but to turn and re/turn ourselves toward God -- preparation, maybe, for that ultimate Return.