The gift we leave behind

The gift we leave behind

Chukat | Numbers 19:1-22:1

How will I die? What happens to me (if there even still is a “me”) next? How will my death affect those I leave behind? The Talmud asks these questions in response to the death of Miriam and Aaron, part of this week’s parsha

The Talmud was compiled some 1,500 years ago, but when it comes to dying, not much has changed. Life expectancy has risen, but only on average, and no one dies “on average.” We hope it will be painless, but, as poet Dylan Thomas urges his dying father, “Do not go gentle into that good night!” 

What advice does the Talmud have for how we die?

“Normal” death, says the Talmud, occurs at old age, providing ample time to say good-bye and order our affairs. But some people die young, often instantly (mita hatufah, a life “snatched away”), sometimes in stages (mita d’huya, death “pushed off,” however briefly). The rabbis know better than to find transcendent meaning in such matters. “What difference does it make, whether ‘snatched away’ or ‘pushed off?’” the Tosafot ask. The Talmud reports Rava’s conclusion: “Length of life depends less on merit than on mazal” — “fate,” he would have said; we call it “luck.” 

Lesson #1: We should live as if goodness were rewarded by longevity, recognizing, however, that it is not; we need mazal. We all fear painful death, so the Talmud holds out hope we will die like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam — with a gentle kiss from God. 

Lesson #2: With luck, we will die peacefully, welcoming release from this life into a blissful state of being we cannot imagine. Our death will affect others. Miriam’s death is followed by the incident at Meribah, where the Israelites thirst for water. Miriam had nurtured her people with a magical well through their wilderness wanderings. With her gone, the well dried up. 

Lesson #3, then: When loved ones die, we miss their nurturing. The bottomless well of love they provided becomes a gaping hole within us. Our tradition insists, however, that “the memory of the righteous is a blessing.” 

So lesson #4: When the gaping hole recedes, we discover the blessings of those who have died. At best, they become models of a life well led; in any case, it dawns on us that we should live as the model we wish to leave behind. 

With mazal, then, we will die of old age — willingly, even, with a kiss from God. In any case, we can live with full intent to be a blessing even after we are gone. For a while, our loved ones may experience the emptiness of our absence, but with time, there can emerge one last enormous gift we leave behind: our own lives that they can emulate — and our deaths as well. We, and they, can grasp that the enemy is not death, but life run down to the point of our bodily functions failing. Death itself is a release from the world we can have no more and a gateway to another stage of being that our tradition describes as beyond, and incomparably better than, what we now know.

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