Death and the Meaning of Life

Sermon given Rosh Hashanah Day, October 2, 1997, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Often, when people learn for the first time that my wife is a psychiatrist, they get nervous. When Toni is around, people wonder if she analyzes their every word and diagnoses psychiatric disorders, real or imagined. Really, they shouldn’t be worried. Once she leaves her office, Toni doesn’t practice psychiatry. I do.

Recently, I attempted to mix Toni’s and my professions. I diagnosed Rosh Hashanah with bi-polar disorder, commonly referred to as “manic depression.” In people, bi-polar disorder is a serious but treatable illness. Rosh Hashanah, too, suffers from significant mood swings. I’m not sure, though, that we would want to cure it, even if we could.

On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah is a day of great joy. We wish one another a shanah tovah, a good year. For sweetness, we eat apples dipped in honey. We celebrate with a festive meal.

On the other hand, Rosh Hashanah is an occasion of somber reflection. The sharp calls of the Shofar awaken us to our “evil ways,” our “unworthy schemes.” And then there is that piercing prayer, Unetaneh Tokef. We proclaim that Rosh Hashanah is “awesome and full of dread.” On this day, God decrees “who shall live and who shall die.”

Talk of death may seem out of place on a day of rejoicing. Death, though, is an inescapable part of our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, just as death is our unavoidable destiny. Our prayers do not seek to depress us. Rather, Judiasm hopes that, aware of our earthly limits, we will grow; we will change; we will live.

Let talk of death not draw us to despair.

Instead, may we give meaning to our all-too-brief lives.

Let not death’s reality focus our faith only on the hereafter.

Instead, may we embrace life in this world all the more dearly.

Let us not devalue life because of its brevity.

Instead, may we affirm that human life is priceless.

Let not the fact of mortality lead us away from God.

Instead, even as we wrestle with our faith, may we find ourselves in the presence of God, with trust in life everlasting.

I have known wonderful men and women whose lives and whose deaths have strengthened my faith in life’s eternal meaning. Today, I would like to tell you about four.

The first I’ll call Joe. When I received the call, telling me that Joe had died, I was sad, and not only because of his death. Frankly, I was concerned that preparing his funeral would be a depressing exercise. I knew that he had reached old age with no family. When he came to Temple, he came alone. Adding insult to injury, he was so penniless that he often didn’t know the source of his next meal.

Joe lived near the Temple, so he would stop by regularly, often receiving financial assistance. No matter how down and out he was, though, every single time Joe walked into the Temple office, he told a joke. After Joe died, I learned more about the jokes, and drew on their deeper meaning.

In preparing for Joe’s funeral, I met the employees of various fast food restaurants and service establishments near his home. Each had come to expect Joe’s daily visits. His jokes made them smile and brightened their days. His constantly good cheer affected their attitudes, making them more satisfied as employees and more loving at home. I was also told that thousands of individuals, all across San Antonio, had come to depend on Joe’s daily early-morning telephone call to their favorite radio station. Joe would tell one joke, broadcast live, and then hang up the phone. He had continued this practice to the very end, even when he was terribly ill, even when he knew that his death was imminent. All these local residents had, for years, begun each day with a smile, compliments of Joe. How many more smiles must they have engendered, as these listeners shared what they had received from Joe?

Though none would have called him a community leader, and he would have scoffed at any suggestion of his importance, Joe did make a significant impact on this community. Mindful of his mortality, he had made his life count.

The same may be said of a woman I’ll call Micki, who made her mark in a very different way. Twenty-five years ago, as a young doctor, Micki had contracted a chronic illness from a patient. From that point forward, she knew that her life expectancy was short. By the time she did die, in her early fifties, she considered herself fortunate to have been granted an “extra” quarter of a century of life.

Faced with her predicament, a lesser person might not have vigorously pursued a career. Yet Micki did succeed as a physician and as an educator of other doctors. She developed new techniques for treating illness, and inspired more than a generation of students to do the same.

At the time of her death, the many who mourned might have insisted that her death was a waste, robbing the world of her life-saving skills and educational expertise. Instead, we reflected on her accomplishments. We affirmed that Micki had achieved immortality through the countless lives that she had saved. We realized that so many more people, who would never know Micki, had been or would be granted additional years through the efforts of her students, and their students after them, and so on, infinitely into the future.

Acutely aware of her earthly limits, Micki had made her life count. With her relatively few years, she had given so much life. Even at the sad hour of Micki’s death, life was glorified.

Muriel, on the other hand, could point to no grand public achievements as she reached the end of her earthly sojourn of some four score years. In all those decades, she had saved no lives, had made no measurable impact on the wider community, and had served no organization as president. And yet, facing her death, Muriel knew that her life had been meaningful.

Muriel, you see, had been a wife. She was also a mother, a grandmother, and even, in the end, a great-grandmother. As she lay dying, Muriel’s children and grandchildren gathered around her. Those who live far away took turns coming to be at her bedside, while those who live in town put aside their usual routine to put Muriel’s needs first. After all, she had done the same for them, for a lifetime.

They remembered little things, and they shared their stories. Muriel had always made time for her children, taking them to the park, to ball games, to the zoo. She had lovingly ministered to them when they were ill and laughed heartily at their jokes. She had taught them to uphold their Jewish heritage, as she did. Later, she had been a hands-on grandmother, from the moment that babies were placed in her arms in hospital waiting rooms, right through to college graduations and weddings. Each grandchild considered Grandma Muriel to be his or her own personal confidant.

When a person such as Muriel dies, there are no plaques, no marks of public recognition, just a simple funeral, a bereaved family, and loving friends around them. For Muriel, nothing would be more meaningful than that. Life, to her, meant giving and receiving love. She shared herself with the people close to her. One can not count the love that Muriel brought into the world. There is no limit to the devotion which she initiated, and which grew as it multiplied through her children and grandchildren. Muriel’s earthly existence was mortal; her love, everlasting.

Last Rosh Hashanah, I told you about my friend and our congregant, Bradley Schifman. Brad was in the Temple that morning, having recently been discharged from the hospital. We prayed for Brad’s healing that day, for he was heriocally fighting acute lymphocytic leukemia. That affliction ultimately took his life last May, on the day before his twenty-eighth birthday.

Last year, I spoke of how Brad had strengthened my belief in the healing power of prayer. Brad’s faith was strong, even though he was aware that his illness probably would not be cured. He knew that he might die, and he trusted that God would care for him forever, whatever the outcome of his medical treatment. He believed that God would continue to watch over his wife, Marjorie, their infant daughter, Hannah, and all of his loved ones. Brad faithfully affirmed that he would dance at Hannah’s wedding. He hoped to be there in person; but if not, he would dance with the angels.

Brad’s only prospect for a long-term cure was a bone marrow transplant, which he sought at a world-class hospital in Seattle. In the weeks surrounding the transplant, Brad and I spoke on the telephone several times. Having prayed together so often in person, we learned to share our faith long distance, always reciting the last line of our Prayer for Healing and the Shema together. On the first day of Passover, Brad took a dramatic turn for the worse. When I called that night, the phone was put to his ear, but he was instructed not to speak. He needed all his energy just to breathe. I prayed, and he listened, until we came to the Shema. Then, through the oxygen mask, he recited those words with me and with his family once again, reaffirming his undying faith in God.

Though Brad lived two more weeks, he did not regain full consciousness after that night, and he never spoke again. It was difficult for any of his loved ones to make sense of Brad’s death. Yet none had any trouble finding meaning in his life. He had given love and received it. He had brought healing to countless other leukemia sufferers by encouraging thousands to register as bone marrow donors, an effort that now continues in his memory. Most enduringly, Brad had linked himself eternally to his God. He had shared a faith that remains so much stronger than death. He had taught that the quality of human life does not depend on the number of days we live on Earth, but rather on the way we live, and on our connection to God that continues in life everlasting.

Today, as we hear the calls of the shofar, we are made mindful of our mortality. Death looms on the horizon, sooner for some, later for others. We do pray for good health, and we ask God to keep us in life for another year. And yet, when we beseech God to inscribe us in the Book of Life, we sense that our prayer means something deeper than asking that we should merely continue to draw breath again next fall. Rather, we pray that our lives will be filled with meaning, from now until the day of our death and beyond.

The quality of a life does not depend on the number of its days. Nothing that we truly value is measured by length. No great work of art, no strain of music, no poetic expression is judged by quantity, by how long it is, but rather by how beautiful, by what is said to us, and meant for us, and by how it has changed us.

That is what these lives were all about. Some were incomplete symphonies, but their melodies will never be forgotten.

As Joe brought laughter to countless men and women, even in his final days, so may we cheer the spirits and lighten the burdens of others.

As Micki won scores of medical achievements, though ever mindful of her own mortality, so may we learn to relieve suffering and become agents of healing.

As Muriel unselfisly shared love with the key people in her life, so may we nurture the human touch.

And as Brad embraced God, even as his final days approached, so may we live and die trusting that our lives find ultimate meaning in the eternal and steadfast presence of the Lord.

On Rosh Hashanah, our prayers tell us that even God is hafetz bahayim, that even God delights in life. We taste the apples and honey and wish for a sweet new year. Our joy would be false, if we did not acknowledge the stark facts of our earthly existence. Yet we rejoice no less, for we know that God has given us a precious gift in life. Our Earthy sojourns are significant: to ourselves, to one another, to God.

Let the air then fill with calls of l’shanah tovah, for even with its harsh tones, this is a good and happy day.