Confronting Mortality

Last week, I attended the funeral of a member of my former congregation. The funeral fell on a weekend, and we were out with the kids for the day. In the afternoon, my husband Tal and the kids dropped me off at the cemetery, went to the mall for ice cream, and then picked me up. I explained to my kids where I was going, and they were fine with that plan. I didn’t think they thought much of it.

When I put my six-year-old son Jeremy to bed that night, he said: “Mom, I love you so much. Even if you die, I still love you.” I assured him that I loved him too. Then he asked: “Does everyone die, and when you die do you get to come back?” Oy vey, I thought, here goes!

I began by answering as honestly as I could, “Yes, sweetie everyone dies…”

The moment that I said it, I wished I could take it back. Jeremy knew about death — my mother died a year ago — but before that moment, he didn’t know that everyone dies, and by extension that he would die someday. How wonderful that he had lived for six and a half years without this realization. How awful it is to face that knowledge.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses grapples with the fact that he is going to die without entering the Promised Land. This week’s parasha begins the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) which is Moses’s final teaching before he dies. The entire book can be understood as his attempt to accept his impending demise. This portion is read on the Sabbath before Tisha B’av (the 9th of Av) which commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem. Therefore, reading about Moses grappling with death coincides with the ritual which confronts our collective mortality.

Even though Moses led the people through the desert for forty long years, he would die without getting to experience his life’s dream of seeing the land. I remember when I learned of this story as a child. We were sitting at a Passover Seder. I was eight or so and I remember being so overwhelmed with sadness for Moses that I almost started to cry right there at the table. I suppose that was the moment that I internalized the idea that everyone dies — and also that one can die even without obtaining one’s life dream.

Now the story of Moses doesn’t seem quite as bad to me. In last week’s parasha, Moses drew up plans for the settlement of the land. What a thrill this must have been for him to make these preparations, knowing they would settle the land because of his life’s work. As parents, dreams shift to focus on the next generation more than our own.

“Most people die when they’re old,” I told Jeremy. I explained that “Big Bubby” his great-grandmother, (my mother’s mother) is 91 years old. “Wow,” he said. I reminded him that we attended her ninetieth birthday. “When she reaches 100, we’ll have to have another big party,” he said, smiled and closed his eyes. I guess when you’re six, 91 seems like a billion light years away, so he felt like death was not something he needed to worry about right now. He snuggled in tighter to the bed.

As I lay beside Jeremy, I realized that I had dodged the second part of his question: “Do you get to come back?” In Judaism, particularly in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) there is an idea of gilgul neshamot (cycle of the souls), otherwise known as reincarnation. To be honest, my daughter reminds me so much of my paternal grandmother of blessed memory, for whom she’s named, that I have often wondered whether my grandmother’s soul has returned in her. I once read a book by Rabbi Elie Spitz called “Does the Soul Survive” which persuasively argued that reincarnation does take place. But did I believe in this idea? Did I believe in it enough to tell him definitively: “yes, sweetie, you get to come back,” or more tentatively: “I think you get to come back?”

As a rabbi, these questions are not new to me, but Jeremy’s questioning was different from those I regularly receive from congregants. This was not an intellectual discussion of the various ideas in our tradition. It was a straightforward, yes or no question about how the system of life and death works. He expected a simple, definitive answer.

Since Jeremy seemed comforted with the idea of his great-grandmother’s birthday celebration, I figured I’d leave the reincarnation question alone for now. But I did want to leave him with some hope. I didn’t want to leave him knowing that he would die someday a long time from now, without any further consolation. So, I said, “There is an idea in Judaism that someday God will fix the world and lift up the people, back to life …” Jeremy said, “That’s what my name means: ‘God will lift up the people.’ (On a previous occasion, I had explained to him that his Hebrew name yirmiyah literally means ‘God will lift up’ and that his middle name Yehudah is also the name of the Jewish people.)

“Yes, it sure does,” I said, and kissed him goodnight as he fell asleep.

List To Remember

On Sunday night, my family went to the July 4th celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. The concert was by the LA Philharmonic, accompanied by Vince Gil, and concluded with fireworks. The music was fantastic; the fireworks were spectacular. The evening included an awe-inspiring tribute to members of the five branches of the armed forces. Those in the audience who had served in the military were asked to stand when their branch’s anthem was played, and everyone clapped in thanks for their service to the country. To me, though, the most meaningful part of the evening had nothing to do with the concert itself.

We had wonderful seats, several sections back from the front, but on the left hand side. At one point early on in the concert, I looked around and behind me. Seeing the back rows, I remembered the first time I’d been to the Hollywood Bowl – when I had sat there. Thirteen years ago, my classmates and I went to the Bowl during orientation week of rabbinical school, just a few days after I moved to Los Angeles. That night, I sat next to a fellow student, Rachel, who soon became my study partner and best friend. I remember being both excited and nervous that night. I wondered whether I would make friends and enjoy my life in this new city where I knew practically no one. I hadn’t thought about that night since, but returning to the same spot brought back the memories of that time, and caused me to reflect on how far my life has come since then.

In this week’s Torah portion, the people in the desert have a similar experience. As they approach the Promised Land, Moses recorded all the places that the people had stayed in their forty years in the desert. This list is long and boring: “They set out from Ramses, and camped in Sukkot; they left Sukkot and went to Etham …” The text continues in this riveting fashion for another 42 verses!

Yet, what seems to us like a dry list must have been a moving walk down memory lane for the people. According to Numbers Rabbah (a collection of rabbinic interpretations on these verses), God performed a miracle for the people at each of these places. The list includes where manna first fell down from the sky, and where Moses struck the rock to bring forth water. Therefore, listing the places would have reminded the people of all the miracles that God did for them.

For me, returning to the Hollywood Bowl had the same effect. When I looked back at the seats, I realized that had I been told the first time I went to the Bowl that I would become a rabbi, meet and marry my husband, have two beautiful children, and live in a house, how thrilled I would have been at this news which seemed entirely out of reach at the time. I was overcome with gratitude.

Indeed, I’ve recently discovered a spiritual trick that helps brighten up almost any day. The only caveat is that this method only works if now is not the worst time in your life.

The trick is that you think of the worst part of your life and get into the mindset of that time. You remember what you wanted and how unattainable those desires were, and then you view your current day through those eyes. For example, a few weeks ago, I went downtown to buy tickets to the circus. I was a bit annoyed to be running this errand. It entailed my driving around in an unfamiliar area. I have no sense of direction and get lost very easily. I was worried about navigating by myself. I also was concerned about how long it might take, as I had a lot of work to do that day.

Then I thought about myself at age seventeen. At that time, my parents were going through a nasty divorce, and all I wanted was to live in a home where people weren’t fighting, to grow up and have my own peaceful family. At the time, this dream seemed impossible. Through my seventeen-year-old eyes, my errand seemed entirely different. I suddenly felt grateful to have a family for which to buy circus tickets, and my day brightened.

Actually Vince Gil conveyed the same idea in his concert. Gil is a famous country singer who has won 20 Grammy awards and sold some 22 million albums. In the concert, he mentioned that he had come to Los Angeles briefly in 1976 with his Banjo trying to make a name for himself. At that time, he said that “he never would have dreamed that he would one day play at the Hollywood Bowl,” and so it was “the thrill of a lifetime” for him to be there. He must play at large amphitheatres all the time now, but the fact that he remembered the perspective of the earlier times in his life was the key to his gratitude and humility. I bet he doesn’t know that he embodies the lessons of this week’s Torah portion.

For the fireworks exhibition, I was holding Hannah on my left lap and had my arm around Jeremy on my right. As the kids marveled at the fireworks, I was also in awe — not only of the pyrotechnics but of my children. Watching the fireworks, my kids screamed, “Oh My God, Oh My God.” I couldn’t have agreed more!