Death. A key theme of Parshat Chukat, this week’s Torah reading (Numbers 19:1-22:1). Moses shares rituals for letting go of grief. Miriam dies. Civilians die. Aaron dies. Soldiers die. Named people. Unnamed people. Famous people. Ordinary people. Israelites. Amorites. All are grieved. But only some are publicly mourned.
Lately, I’ve been reading about death. Because I just led a conference on the topic. And because after the conference I crashed. So, I’ve been sick at home, watching TV and reading. And I’d like to share a bit of that reading with you. But first, some context.
As I write, I walk through Mountain View Cemetery. A local treasure, a documentary history of Vancouver. Areas for veterans, unions, religious and ethnic groups dominate the cemetery’s older sections. Newer sections offer a meditation garden to remember babies. Plus a modern crematorium and a memory lane lined with vaults of ashes. Young trees and new stands of pampas grass grow near established hedges.
On holidays, families come to share memories. They leave wreaths, candles, and dolls. Evenings, pet lovers walk their dogs. Weekends, children ride their bicycles. Creepy movies and TV funerals are filmed here. After dark, coyotes come out. At dawn, crows face off against predatory ravens.
Mountain View Cemetery has a teaching to share. Grief, it says, is part of life. Death is part of nature. Your community cares about you. Old, young, veteran, musician, firefighter, builder. Chinese, Italian, Irish, Russian, hybrid origin. Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Atheist. We remember all of you. For fifteen years, I’ve lived near this cemetery. Maybe my body will rest here someday, in the shade of the mountains.
Deliberately, I speak only of the death of my body. That’s because I read Simcha Raphael’s book, Jewish Views of the Afterlife. A soul, I learned, is vast. It’s physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. So, a soul’s development continues endlessly. And thus, physical death is just a moment in the soul’s journey.
But there are other kinds of death. Metaphorical kinds, I suppose, relative to the physical. You can work to kill your inner inclinations to evil. Or die fully to earthly desires, hoping to find fulfillment in ecstatic spiritual union. So suggested early rabbinic sages, says Michael Fishbane in The Kiss of God. That’s what it means to “love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might” (Deut. 6:5).
But how mystical, really, are those practices? Aren’t they just ordinary approaches to death? In The Aging of Aquarius, Helen Waldstein writes about finding purpose after retirement. Looking towards death, she says, is part of aging. Some elders welcome it as an opportunity to dissolve fear with love. Or to take an honest account of one’s limited but well-meaning moral compass.
Has your compass pointed truly? What has thrown it off course? Political ideology, for example? Sarah Kendzior writes about this in The View from Flyover Country. A bad idea can lead to an immoral conclusion. In the U.S., some see wealth as evidence of merit. So, they see bad economic luck as bad character. Thus, poor children must be immoral. Health insurance would be wasted on them. If one political party is so bold as to subsidize it, the other will retaliate. The party will deny those children food. And children will die.
Thus, I return to Parshat Chukat, the Torah reading. There, as in real life, death can be beautiful. And death can be senseless. How do you grieve? How do you protest?
Photo credit: Jason Payne, Vancouver Sun.