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Lessons For Living: Dying to live

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Rabbi Ralph OAM Keeps Connected

It has to be one of the most heart wrenching vignettes. Early last week in Chicago, Irina and Kevin McCarthy (among others) were shot dead in front of their two-year-old son, Aiden leaving him an orphan. Irina’s grandfather, Michael Levberg picked up his grandson at the police station. He said Aiden told him “Mummy and Daddy are coming soon”. Aiden survived because his Dad, Kevin hid him under his body.

Events like this confront us in a deeply personal way. We imagine ourselves and our own families in this moment of horror. The unbearable innocence of a two-year-old and the painful poignancy of their loss cuts sharply into our consciousness. We know what this little one does not know – that his future has changed irrevocably. The purity of Aidan’s expectation that mummy and daddy will return, leaves us in the painful valley of tears. His father’s protective instinct reaches into the hearts of every parent.

For many of us, news of the Chicago killings in a very Jewish neighbourhood, brought the anguish of this senseless shooting even closer to home than we would like. That sense of it could have been me ‘there but for the grace of God’, but also the gratitude that we live in a country which does not tolerate the egregious right to own and carry arms.

News of the shooting, came to me when I returned from a talk by ex-Melbournian Sally Berkovic about her latest book called Death Duties, a moving reflection on her mother‘s death, her work with the Chevra Kadisha (the Jewish burial society) and intimations of her own mortality. It is a brave book challenging the ways we avoid talking about death; the taboo that still enshrouds our feelings about death and dying.

Sally opened the evening by reading the confronting introductory passage of her book:
“I will lie on a cold metal table. A sheet will cover my still, naked body. It is a body that no-one, other than my husband, has ever seen. It will be tranquil in the room. Four holy women of the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society, will wash their hands... In a quiet murmur, each one will say the designated blessings for the task ahead. No words, other than brief instructions, will be said. And so will begin the preparations for my burial. A simple pine coffin sits on a raised trolley in the room. It will be filled with some sawdust. Some earth from the Land of Israel will be sprinkled on top...'' 

I was thinking of Sally’s book and how difficult and delicate it is to talk about death and how so many of our frontline workers at Jewish Care and other institution face it on a weekly, if not on a daily, basis. I was thinking how Jewish tradition urges us to constantly think of our mortality, but also focus on our capacity for living and giving.

This is reflected in the comment of Rabbi Eliezer in the Mishna that you should ‘repent one day before your death’ (Avot 2:15). How do we know which day it’s going to be? But that’s just the point – meditate on it every day, consider every day as your last and therefore live it lovingly, fully and generously.

I was also considering how Jewish teachings seemed to mesh with some of the Buddhist teachings in another remarkable little book I’ve been reading by a Tibetan monk subtitled: ‘What a monk can teach you about living from nearly dying.' The book’s title is In Love with the World and gets us to think about the evanescence of life, the need to let go and how to prepare for our own death. It also reminds us what a joyous and beautiful gift it is to live and challenges us to reach a point where we can let go of that wondrous gift with peace of mind.

All of this was a backdrop for preparing my class on the week’s Torah reading in the Biblical book of Numbers (Chapters 19-22) called Chukat . It is possibly the most significant portion of the Torah on the very subject of death and dying. Not only does it record the deaths of Aaron and Miriam, the two siblings of Moses, but it also forecasts the death of Moses himself. It is introduced by one of the most enigmatic rituals – the purification from death with the ashes of a red heifer. 

It is a profound exploration of how to face death and then move on with faith and hope. From the cold ashes of the hot heifer we feel both the touch of death and the rush of life – the ashes are mingled with water the very source of life itself. Then there is the uncharacteristically angry reaction of Moses to his sister’s death (hitting the rock instead of talking to it as God instructed) from which we learn how grief and loss can unsettle and undermine the very best of us.

It also reminds us that death often evokes anger and even rage especially when it seems so random and unwarranted like the murder of the young parents of Aiden or the assassination of a leader like Shinzo Abe at the end of last week. Finally, from the tender way Moses helps Aaron prepare for his death (and the subsequent mourning by the people of Israel for Aaron), we learn that death does not have to overpower us and as the poet puts it, Death be not proud! From the dying we learn about living.

The lesson from the Jewish tradition is that the reality and inevitability of death can teach us how to live life more courageously and passionately!