In Jewish tradition, when we hear that someone has died, we say a blessing.
Sometimes, when I tell mourners this, I can see in their eyes that they are baffled, or even upset, by this custom. What can it mean to offer words of praise to God upon the occasion of a death? For most of us, in most cases, when someone has died, praise is not what comes first to our lips. And maybe that's part of our tradition's wisdom. When someone has died, we're asked to offer a blessing -- to praise God not despite our sorrow, but in and through that sorrow.
What is the blessing we recite? ברוך אתה ה', אלהינו מלך העולם, דיין האמת / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, dayan ha-emet, usually translated "Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, the true judge." (The full blessing is said by those who have suffered the loss; the rest of us use the first word and the last two words as our response to the news. ".ברוך דיין האמת / Baruch dayan ha-emet," Blessed is the true judge.)
Whew. That can be a tough one for us to swallow. We moderns don't typically think of God as a judge; we're more comfortable with other metaphors. God as parent, God as Beloved, God as creator, wellspring, source. But Judge? We use judge and king metaphors during the Days of Awe, and often we struggle with them then. How can we relate to this metaphor in our moments of personal mourning? Perhaps especially if the death seems to us to be "unfair"?
Rabbi Marcia Prager teaches that one answer can be found in the very letters of the blessing -- specifically the Hebrew word אמת / emet, truth. The letters of the Hebrew word for "truth" are aleph, mem, and taf -- the first letter of the alef-bet, the middle letter, and the last letter. What is true of every life? Every journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
When we read Torah each year, the ending and the beginning kiss (on Simchat Torah, when we read the very end of the scroll and immediately turn around to read the very beginning.) In the lifecycle, too, every ending opens up a new beginning: for the soul of the person who has died, and for we who remain. When we make this blessing, we bless the One Who grants each of us our stories a beginning, a middle, and an end -- or maybe the One Whose presence we strive to discern in our journeys, as they begin, during the great middle of every lifetime (no matter how long or short it may be), and as each journey comes to an end.