In Sefer Bereishis we meet our patriarchs and matriarchs, and then all too soon within several weeks we have to say goodbye and move on to the next chapter in our national history. I have always found the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Sarah and Rachel to be especially poignant as I try to imagine the grief felt by Avraham and Yaakov.
Despite my having studied these biblical narratives since my early years in yeshiva day school, when I read through the weekly Torah portions there is still a spark of childhood innocence in me that hopes maybe things will be different this time. Avraham will return home from the Akeidah and enjoy his final years together with Sarah as they “shep nachas” from their son Yitzhak. Rachel Imeinu will survive the birth of Binyamin and the whole extended family will live together in peace and harmony in Canaan.
Unfortunately, as adults we know all too well that not all stories end with “happily ever after,” and death is often the villain.
The Torah never relates the thoughts of the Avos and the Imahos regarding the difficult events in their lives with which they had to contend. We can only guess what they were thinking based on their actions. One of the main lessons of these early biblical narratives is that death and tragedy spare no one, not even our holy Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
As a psychologist who treats the elderly, the specter of death is pervasive in my work. Many of my clients are either coping with the loss of a lifelong companion or are trying to come to terms with their physical changes and the fact that given their advanced age, the reality of death is no longer easy to deny.
It is one thing to contemplate the superficial aspects of one’s demise, but to do so on a deep emotional level is far more difficult. Most people go about their day-to-day existence without giving any thought to the fact that our lives have an expiration date that can come at any time.
This concept was exhaustively explored in Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death. The extent to which we can deny death is best illustrated by an old joke: A rabbi is delivering a bombastic speech on a Shabbos morning. He notes that someday everyone in his congregation will die and have to face his or her maker. The rabbi stops for a moment to let his point sink in. The silence in the shul is pervasive. Suddenly a man starts laughing out loud. The rabbi turns to him and asks, “What’s so funny?” The man responds, “I’m just visiting. I’m not a member of this congregation.”
Death denial manifests itself in many ways. For example, the current popularity of plastic surgery can be seen as a person’s attempt to look his or her best, but it can also represent an unconscious attempt the reset the clock. “If I look young, I am young, and therefore my end is farther off in the future.”
When the baby boomers began coming of age in the mid- and late-1960s, a popular slogan by the more militant of that generation was “Trust no one over 30.” As time passed and more and more of these individuals found themselves on the “wrong” side of 30, an increasing number of voices in the media declared that “40 is the new 20.” Several years later, that chant evolved into “60 is the new 40.”
I imagine that at some point someone will decide that “80 is the new 60” and eventually we will hear that “death is the new life.”
The Anglo-American writer Susan Ertz noted the irony in the fact that “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
Every now and then we witness an event that wakes us from our fantasy of endless life. I witnessed the following scene in one of the facilities where I treat clients. Two male workers were making negative jokes about their wives. Just then an elderly man got off the elevator and heard the tail end of their conversation. I overheard this man say to himself, “I’d give anything to have my late wife back with me.” Suddenly, these funny putdowns no longer seemed humorous. I found myself thinking that indeed the day will come when my friends, my love ones, and I will no longer be here.
A few weeks ago an elderly patient who is in general good health bravely admitted how hard it has become for her to live her life with death feeling so close. Yes, the older one gets, the harder it becomes to dismiss the fear of death. Nevertheless, the truth is that death is always staring us in the face.
Whether we are young or old, there are no guarantees. We just choose to downplay or ignore this existential truth. Fortunately, this fact of life need not be a source of sadness but can instead enhance the quality of life.
As the noted psychiatrist Irvin Yalom has written, “Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death may save us.” That we humans are relegated to a finite amount of time in this world can serve as a constant reminder to live each day with a full appreciation of the good in our life – to take nothing for granted; to refuse to allow ourselves to be upset by nuisances that mean nothing in the long run; and to cherish our time with loved ones and friends.
In addition to reminding us of our mortality, Sefer Bereishis teaches us another significant lesson: Although we cannot extend our lives beyond our allotted time, the way we conduct ourselves during our lifetime can potentially afford us immortality in this world.
The actions of our Avos and Imahos have continued to impress, inspire, and guide us through the millennia. To a lesser extent, this can be true for each of us. The memories of the kindnesses we do for others can outlive us.
When I was a psychology intern living alone and working in a facility located in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, one of my supervisors treated me in a manner that can only be described as saintly. He not only mentored me but frequently invited me into his home and treated me like family. Through the years I have often told my friends and family of his altruism.
Although my grandparents and parents are deceased, I enjoy sharing the many life lessons I learned from them with my children and now with my grandchildren. In this way my ancestors continue to live on in their minds and hearts. I can only hope that I have led the kind of life that will enable my children and grandchildren to proudly share my legacy with their descendants.