Getting Close To Death
*Some Yizkor thoughts as we once again remember those no longer with us tomorrow on Shemini Atzeret
I can remember the feeling like it was yesterday. The crying. The darkness. The burial shroud. But mostly the silence. I think part of the reason it felt so eery for me was that having taken the bus from Jerusalem alone, disembarked on some random road near Bet Shemesh, and then hiked up some poorly lit incline to the cemetery, I found myself there a bit early and it gave me time to think about whom we were about to bury.
My Uncle Morton Yolkut, my father’s older and only brother passed away while I was spending my 3rd year in Israel studying at the Conservative Yeshiva. My father and his brother had an immensely complicated relationship that involved a childhood of unfair expectations and rivalry foisted upon them by a mother who was not totally aware of her actions. The rest of the story is a longer one that probably deserves some treatment in a memoir one day.
There were months/years of respite in their relationship and of course, we always traveled to each other’s simchas, yet their relationship always remained frayed. My Uncle Mort was a Rabbi and I always remember liking him because he would also talk to me about sports and well, he looked and sounded a lot like my dad.
In his later years, I didn’t see him as much, especially as he battled various illnesses and maladies. So when I got the call from my father that he had died and as the only Israeli based rep of my family, I would of course attend his funeral. When they brought his body out from preparation for the service, that’s when that silence hit me.
In Israel, in keeping with traditional Jewish burial practice, the body is brought out in a very thin shroud and that’s it. My uncle in my memories was a giant of a man but when I saw him there, he looked tiny and diminished having succumbed to years of illness. It was the first time in my life I could see death and feel it in a very real way so much so that it was as if I were encased in a cone of silence.
It was one of the reasons this was so jarring for me. But as I talked to my mom afterward, a woman who has worked in hospitals all of her adult life, she mentioned that the truth is we don’t do a great job of confronting death in Western Culture. For the most part, it’s sterilized, kept behind walls, doors, embalming fluids, and caskets. Death is a kept a distance because, well, death is hard and messy and it pierces the bubbles that all we want to stay cocooned in. Perhaps though Judaism and its Yizkor services along with some inspiration from other religions, allow us to confront death in a healthier and more balanced way.
In the highlands of Sulawesi island in eastern Indonesia, there is a community of people that experience death not as a singular event but as a gradual social process. In Tana Toraja, the most important social moments in people's lives are funerals. They are characterized by elaborate rituals that tie people in a system of reciprocal debt based on the amount of animals -- pigs, chickens and, most importantly, water buffalo -- that are sacrificed and distributed in the name of the deceased. So this cultural complex surrounding death, the ritual enactment of the end of life, has made death the most visible and remarkable aspect of Toraja's landscape.
Lasting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, funeral ceremonies are a raucous affair, where commemorating someone who's died is not so much a private sadness but more of a publicly shared transition. And it's a transition that's just as much about the identity of the living as it is about remembrance of the dead.
So every year, thousands of visitors come to Tana Toraja to see, as it were, this culture of death, and for many people these grandiose ceremonies and the length of the ceremonies are somehow incommensurable with the way that we face our own mortality in the West. So even as we share death as a universal experience, it's not experienced the same way the world over.
So where we see an unquestionable reality, death as an irrefutable biological condition, Torajans see the expired corporeal form as part of a larger social genesis. So again, the physical cessation of life is not the same as death. In fact, a member of society is only truly dead when the extended family can agree upon and marshal the resources necessary to hold a funeral ceremony that is considered appropriate in terms of resources for the status of the deceased. And this ceremony has to take place in front of the eyes of the whole community with everyone's participation.
So after a person's physical death, their body is placed in a special room in the traditional residence, which is called the tongkonan. And the tongkonan is symbolic not only of the family's identity but also of the human life cycle from birth to death. Until the funeral ceremony, which can be held years after a person's physical death, the deceased is referred to as "to makala," a sick person, or "to mama," a person who is asleep, and they continue to be a member of the household. They are symbolically fed and cared for, and the family at this time will begin a number of ritual injunctions, which communicates to the wider community around them that one of their members is undergoing the transition from this life into the afterlife known as Puya.
What I found most powerful about this ceremony is the way it honors the transition from life to death. There is a sort of barrier that we create here in the West. Either you’re dead or you’re alive.
In this culture, that curtain is parted, the words are integrated, and everyone exists in this liminal space, seeing their loved one’s death along with thinking about their own mortality. It allows those in that culture to understand as one member of the tribe put it “We never leave our parents,” Mr. Nani said. “We have to stay in touch with them.”
Change out parent for whomever it is you’re mourning here today, and that’s what I think Yizkor allows us to do as well. It will probably be a long time before western culture adjusts in its relationship to death but Judaism certainly recognizes this need. Yizkor, is, in and of itself, the opening up of the lines of communication. It’s a method of preparation and confronting death so we are not totally caught off guard. And each Yizkor, respective to its holiday, offers I think a unique opportunity to do that.
This time of year is loud. Not in the sense of the word that is overbearing or noisy but there’s a lot of aural stimulation. We start with our shofar blasts at the beginning of Elul. We have countless recitations of Avinu Malkeinu. God’s attributes, all 13 of them are stated over and over. Even outside of shul, there are festive meals with apples dipped in honey, break fasts where the sound of slathered cream cheese might be heard, and then the joy and song filled sukkah with the sounds of nature as accompaniment.
And then we get to Shemini Atzeret, which, while appended to Sukkot, is in and of itself, its own holiday. The Hasidic rabbi known as the Slonimer Rebbe, Sholom Noach Berezovky teaches that there are two days called atzeret, "pausing," during the year. On each of these days, God asks us to be people who choose to pause, to linger in the divine presence.
One of these days is Shavuot. Shavuot is called an atzeret, a day of holy pausing, and comes as the 50th day after the 49-day journey of Counting the Omer. And Shemini Atzeret is called an atzeret, a day of holy pausing, and it's also a 50th day; it comes after 7 weeks of the intense spiritual work of the high holiday season. Seven weeks ago was Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the month of teshuvah which prepares us for the Days of Awe. Count 49 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul, and the 50th day is today -- Shemini Atzeret.
The Slonimer concludes by saying that the white parchment of the Torah, which contains all of the letters, is holier than the words because it contains all of them within its field. Just so, he says, these days of pausing contain all of the holiness of the holy seasons each one comes to complete. So within itself, Shemini Atzeret contains all the special feeling and emotion of all the high holiday season.
So it’s all the more reason for it to feel “quiet” relative to the rest of the High Holidays. But I think this notion of quiet and silence goes a bit deeper and I think it relates to the Yizkor we are about to say. We’ve now been given an opportunity to sit in silence. To open up the barrier that we normally keep closed with the world beyond. Death is usually kept at bay by our own defenses. But on Yizkor, we step into that phone booth if I may be a bit old-fashioned and open up the line again.
We need to do it this day because we need the intimacy of being alone with our loved ones. Perhaps we hide from the emotion of their passing because it’s still too raw and visceral. But now, God doesn’t just invite us for 1 more day of holiday as shemini atzeret is often described, but we are given one more day to sit with our relatives, to put ourselves face to face with the other side. Each time we say yizkor, I imagine it’s Judaism’s attempt to soften the blow of any time we actually have to meet with death with the loss of a loved one, as if it’s whispering to us, remember what it feels like so you don’t get so lost the next time.
The quiet of shemini atzeret and the quiet of yizkor also align perfectly with another moment of quiet in our Torah. Even though we never get to read it on Shabbat, we do find in this week’s portion the death of Moses. So Moses, the servant of God, died there in the land of Moab, by God.
There is much lacking in this description of Moses’ death. What happened in those last few seconds? The only clue the text gives us, just at the end of the line above, is that Moses died somehow “by God.” Now what’s interesting is that the phrase in Hebrew is “al pi Hashem” (על פי השם), which can mean, “by God,” “by way of God,” or “by God’s command,” but is actually an idiom that literally translates to, “by the mouth of God.”
What might it mean that Moses died by the mouth of God? Rashi gives the classic answer, in just one word:benishika - with a kiss.
Rashi is taking his answer from a passage in the Talmud…but what does it mean? Here is how Maimonides explains it:
The meaning of this saying is that [Moses] died in the midst of the pleasure derived from the knowledge of God and [his] great love for Him. (3:51)
So Moses died from a rapture induced by knowledge of God. What kind of knowledge? Something he had never known before, and something that one cannot know and live.
I’d like to offer that perhaps he used his last few moment in life to become closer to God than he ever had before. Moses lived a noisy life too. So much joy but so much grumbling. Always somethign. Maybe he took advantage of his last five minutes by finding an unparalleled level of intimacy with God. Instead of asking for one more chance to get into the land, Moses sits in the silence and embraces God. May we merit the same today. As we all encounter those whom we are mourning, let us promise to sit in the silence and not run away from the feeling of death. As our friends in the Toraja tribe remind us, we can’t leave them-we must stay in touch...Hag Sameach and may the memory of all those remembered today be for a blessing.