Last week’s blog post was so stupid that I thought I should atone for it by writing something serious, and what could be more serious than death? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately because my high school graduating class has lost a number of people this year. I had a big class, almost 800, so maybe losing four or five isn’t that out of whack, statistically speaking, for my age group, but it sure feels like a lot. I’ve written about what a lousy system the whole birth/death thing is before, but this time I’m going to focus on what really bothers me, and that’s how we Jews are supposed to come to terms with death.
I know we don’t believe in an afterlife, but I worry that I missed something critical while doodling my way through Hebrew School that would have helped me understand how we’re supposed to deal with death and the associated grief, from a religious perspective. Of course, this needs to be framed by the fact that I’ve only recently graduated to agnosticism from my earlier stance as an atheist. Despite my position, I am jealous of those who benefit from the comfort that faith can provide. I admitted this bizarre dichotomy the other day, during a class called Judaism and Critical Thought, taught by my Rabbi, Rim Meirowitz. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that Judaism offers coping mechanisms that even a non-believer can embrace.
Rabbi Rim explained that for Jews,”… life after death is found in the community remembering the deceased.” My first response was, well then, it’s not life after death is it? They’re just as dead. But Rim went on to explain that we create occasions to remember, like Yahrzeits (the anniversary of the death) and Yitzkor (a service performed four times a year). And just like that, I understood. We continue to honor and respect our dead for as long as we are alive.
I felt an overwhelming sense of relief; I felt comforted, like a person with faith. The most surprising part of this epiphany is that these things we do, Yahrzeits and Yitzkor, are not new to me. Each month the temple publishes a newsletter with the list of Yahrzeits, we recite the mourner’s Kaddish at services. Why did I never appreciate the power of these rituals before?
Rabbi Rim is a smart, well-read guy, so I’m sure he was quoting someone else when he suggested that faith is based on an individual’s willingness to create the meaning of life for him or herself, and then forget that they created it. I’m still not willing to take the next step and proclaim a belief in the one whose name we should not write, according to Jewish practice (and no, I’m not talking about Voldemort), but I do like the idea of constructing the meaning of my own life.
The act of telling stories about my life, my friends, people I care about, people who have influenced me, people I don’t know, gives my life meaning. Mind you, I don’t know what it means, but I’ve still got time to figure that out.
Pingback: Judy Mintz: The meaning of life « NESCBWI Kidlit Reblogger
Thank you for this thoughtful essay, Judy. With the loss of my aunt just this past weekend, I appreciate it all the more. I hadn’t realized that the notion of life after death through remembrance in the community was a Jewish idea, but it is one that I remember vividly learning from my mother as a child and have consciously turned to when contemplating how to explain death of a loved one to my three year-old son. (The crisis in that instance–a desperately sick pet–turned out to be a false alarm, but my wife and I agreed that we would talk about a lost cat in that way rather than conjuring up a cartoon-like image of our cat in kitty heaven.) I don’t know how such little kids respond, but my feeling is that there is deep comfort in drawing from what we all know to be true when confronting something so profoundly unknowable.
Thank you, Ken. It’s wonderful to think that your son will benefit from your mother’s lessons to you. That says it all.
This is a very nice post this week. I wouldn’t worry about last week’s post – blogs can be like a Seinfeld episode – all about nothing. I often blog about very silly topics and people still seem to read it.
Welcome, Judy, to the Agnostics Club. Have you received your secret ring and badge yet?
I don’t know. I think it’s a secret.