The inevitability of death
Our Torah portion is book-ended by the deaths of the first couple to whom the Torah points as the ancestors of the Israelites. In between, the Torah narrates how a wife is secured for their son, Isaac, ensuring that the spiritual story that will unfold throughout the rest of the Torah will continue beyond the first generation.
When it comes to the death of Abraham, the text is sparse: “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.” (Genesis 25:8) But in the imagination of the rabbis of the Talmudic period, we get additional suggestions about what that moment might have been like.
One legend relates that when the angels appeared to Abraham at Sodom, Abraham recognized a particularly beautiful angel, and inquired as to his name. He replied, “I am the Angel of Death.” Abraham then asked, “Why have you come here?” The Angel of Death replied, “I have come for your holy soul.”
But Abraham refused to go with him, and arose instead to enter his tent. But the Angel of Death followed him there, and then went with him wherever Abraham went, saying, “I will not depart from you until I take your soul.”
Abraham refused to believe that such a beautiful angel could be named Death. So he asked the angel to make his countenance gloomy and ferocious. Now terrified at what he saw, Abraham asked the angel to resume his radiant and beautiful appearance. Once he did, Abraham went to his room and lay down. And there, finally, the Angel of Death took his life with a kiss.
The Angel of Death appears in many midrashim about biblical heroes in their final earthly hours. Such appearances eventually make their way into the chasidic tradition, specifically around the final hours of chasidic rebbes. In his final illness, the disciples and students of the Ba’al Shem Tov came to be with him. They were puzzled to hear him say to someone they could not see: “I concede these two hours to you. Do not bother me.” They asked him with whom he was speaking, and the Ba’al Shem Tov replied: “Don’t you see the Angel of Death, who was always fleeing from before me?” Meaning that the Ba’al Shem Tov had chased him away at every prior approach.
He then told his students: “Now that the Angel of Death has been given permission to take me, how wings are spread, and it is a great joy for him.”
In the chasidic text “The Book of Departure” that collects the deathbed stories of chasidic rebbes, we read: “We hear [the word] ‘angel’ as a protective and calming notion; but when partnered with [the word] ‘death’ it evokes fear. Our work together is to approach death not out of fear, but out of a sense of love and protection.”
In these legends, we see an awareness, and an acceptance, that from the moment we arrive in the world, we are accompanied by the presence of the inevitability of our departure from this same world. In both stories, we see a willingness to make peace with this awareness. The “Angel of Death” is our Jewish metaphor for the reality of mortality, for the acceptance of impermanence, and for the inevitability of transience. The challenge Jewish spiritual teaching places before us is to see the reality of mortality not as a limitation but as a gift: how shall we use our time in this world to add holiness to creation?
Rabbi Richard Hirsh is assistant rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom, Cherry Hill.