A Jewish Perspective on Death and Dying

Talk Given at SFU End of Life Expo, Nov 4, 2017
Rabbi Hannah Dresner
spiritual leader of Or Shalom: Vancouver’s East Side Shul

I have just come from Or Shalom, the spiritual community I serve as rabbi, where I opened our Sabbath service with this blessing:

My God, the soul You have given me is fresh this morning. You created it. You formed it. You breathe it into me. You keep me breathing, but there will come a time when you will take it away from me…

For each breath still in me, I thank You my own God, Lord of spirits, Master of all that happens. Thank you for returning my soul to me upon waking. With each breath, You give me life, anew.

The Jewish daily liturgy expresses gratitude for the gift of being alive, for the gift of our ephemeral bodies united with an everlasting soul at the moment of birth, for the purpose of enacting our particular soul’s work- in-the-world.

Judaism is a religion of action, and knowing that our days on earth are numbered spurs us make the most of life. Our bodies are granted us for the purpose of raising this world to it’s highest potential, and Judaism supports that objective with codified a set of opportunities we call “mitzvot,” acts of goodness.

We are taught that we enjoy the fruits of life in response to our honoring of our parents, performance of acts of loving kindness, study in fellowship, hospitality to the wayfarer, visiting the sick, assurance of dowry for brides, attendance the dead to the grave, devotion in prayer, and our peace-making.

At the end of life, we honor our parents by mourning them for a full year, and then enacting rituals of remembrance, thereafter, on the anniversaries of their deaths.

Visitation of the sick is not just the pastoral role of the rabbi, but is incumbent upon every Jew. At Or Shalom, we have a system that includes a coordinator of care for each person in need, and congregants who’ve signed on to offer assistance ranging from food prep, to tech support, and body work.

Care for mourners traditionally includes attention to the mourner’s home environment – setting out a basin of water for ritual cleansing after the burial, covering mirrors so mourners might remain in an internal state, low stools set out so that mourners can enact the lowly condition of their hearts, and preparation of a simple meal of lentils and eggs, considered symbolic of eventual return to a productive life.

Fellow community members ensure that mourners are joined in their homes for communal prayer, several times a day, for seven days, so that they can pray witnessed and embraced by community, and, at the end of the week, the community raises a mourner up from the stool and takes him or her for a walk around the block, as a tiny step toward return to the world. At Or Shalom, we offer of a lay “listener” for the full year of mourning, someone to have tea with, who represents the community at large in companioning the grief process.

Before death, a Jew is offered opportunity to create a living will and to confess. The main Biblical source for these mitzvot is Jacob’s request of God, near death:

“Lord of the World, please grant that a man should fall ill a few days before his death in order that he have time to put his house in order and repent of his sins.” …So it happened that Jacob fell ill a little while before his death, and gathered his children to him, and blessed them.

In the final moments of life, a rabbi might help the dying to offer last words of wisdom to closest kin.

Jews confess on their death beds, asking that they be forgiven by their spouses and loved ones and friends, and in the eyes of God, for all sins in life. The dying also acknowledging that they forgive any wrong ever done to them in life, so that the slate is clear and all is aligned for an easy transition. We seek an un-conflicted leave-taking of the soul from her disintegrating body, and a swift and peaceful ascent of the soul.

On his and her deathbed, the final words of a Jew are “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” – “Listen, Israel, Adonai our God is the unity of all that is.” Perhaps this is our one declaration of faith – belief that all is connected, all part of a great and vast whole – each man and woman connected to her fellow, human beings connected to the other animal species, animate and inanimate Creation of-a- piece, and in the moment of death, earth connected to heaven by the soul that traverses that boundary as it leaves the body and goes “home.”

One sacred myth teaches that when souls return to heaven, they assemble before the Throne of Glory, and God asks: “What did you learn from human beings on earth?” In this way, God discovers how her work has been enacted in the world and how human beings have filtered her aspirations for the world through their humanness, to make God’s commandments come alive, with color and texture and joy.

Our great modern theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “For the pious man, it is a privilege to die.” More fully:

The deepest wisdom man can attain is to know that… we have to conquer in order to succumb; we have to acquire in order to give away; we have to triumph in order to be overwhelmed… The aspiration is to obtain; the perfection is to dispense. This is the meaning of death: …[it is] the act of giving away in reciprocity, on man’s part, for God’s gift of life. For the pious man it is a privilege to die.

Once a person does die, there are two sequential foci in Judaism: first, our honoring the body of the deceased, then, once the body is interred, support of the mourner.

A corpse, is not left alone for even a minute. A society of the laity solemnly prepares the body for burial with ritual washing and dressing in shrouds. Shrouds and coffin are uniform, offering equality in death, opting for the simplest, greenest alternatives – linen shrouds, a plain wooden box or basket or just a sack, so there is no barrier to quick, unmediated, return of our bodies to the clay from which we were formed in our Creation myth.

Ranked highest amongst all the mitzvot are these opportunities to offer kindness to one who can no longer thank us. This includes the requirement to eulogize publicly, and to bury.

And in the act of burial, emphasis shifts from honoring the dead to caring for the mourner. The physical labor of burial by family and community both honors the dead and makes the death real in a manner considered to be healing.

Once the grave is fully filled, the mourners recite kaddish, magnifying and sanctifying God’s name, right there at the grave, the prayer a kind of Zamboni clearing a path for ascent of the soul.

Then, those in attendance at the burial form two lines and the mourners pass between them as they walk away from the grave, greeted by wave after wave of consolation: Hamakom yenachem etchem b’toch shaar avlei Tzion v’Yerushalayim; Hamakom yenachem etchem b’toch shaar avlei Tzion v’Yerushalayim, each individual in those two lines offering the blessing of,May you be comforted,” May you be comforted,” May you be comforted,” as the mourners pass them by.

The wife of our famous late 18th century rabbi, Simcha Bunam of Peshischa, Poland, wept at her husband’s deathbed, but the dying rabbi comforted her saying: “My dear, don’t cry, because my whole life was simply that I might learn how to die…”

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One Response to A Jewish Perspective on Death and Dying

  1. Phil Moses says:

    What an excellent summary Hannah!
    So well-written and thought provoking.

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