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.
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