Denying Death or Facing It
All men are mortal. Yankel is a man. Therefore, Yankel is mortal.
You have just read a basic lesson in logic, one that appears in almost every textbook on the subject.
It is undoubtedly true that all of us, Yankel or Yentel, are mortal and will someday die. Yet it is also true that we deny our mortality and live our lives as though death was not inevitable.
Our tendency to exclude our deaths from our awareness leads to some peculiar results. For example, in the graduate program which was designed to prepare me for a career as a psychotherapist, death was not part of the curriculum. The entire topic of death and dying was not something discussed in the graduate psychology programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
How well I remember attending a workshop by the then little known Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross which introduced me and numerous other mental health professionals to the issues of death and dying. Her book, On Death and Dying, became the first in a flood of similar works designed to train professionals to be aware of the psychology of the dying person, and of the ways in which people coped with the death of loved ones. That book continues to occupy a place of prominence on my personal bookshelf.
The Jewish tradition encourages us to contemplate our ultimate end. Especially at this time of year, so soon before the days of awe and judgment, death preoccupies our consciousness. Those of us who are familiar with the Rosh Hashanah liturgy can already hear the cantor chant, “Who will live and who will die?”
This week, we read two Torah portions, Nitzavim and Vayelech, the first of which contains the last public address which Moses made before his death, and the second of which tells us so much about his inner feelings as he prepared to die.
A careful reading of these two parshiyot demonstrates that in Parshat Nitzavim, Moses stands before a huge audience, all of Israel, judges and chieftains, and the lowly wood choppers and water fetchers, and delivers a powerful inspirational message.
Then, Parshat Vayelech opens with the phrase, “And Moses went and spoke…” The commentaries tell us that Moses left the podium from which he addressed the public and went down to the people, visiting each of them individually. He did this in order to take leave of each person, and to assure him that his death did not mean that the people’s mission would fail.
He told them that like every other mortal he was about to die and that he could no longer “go out and come in.” He was exquisitely conscious of his waning powers and wanted to use his final moments to say his goodbyes to his people face to face.
Rashi tells us that by saying, “I can no longer go out and come in,” he was indicating that “the traditions and wellsprings of wisdom” were no longer available to him. He sensed that he no longer had access to his inner sources of inspiration and creativity. What a lucid glimpse into the emotional experience of our great shepherd, during his last hours on earth!
As you may know, Rashi is so great a biblical commentator that there are commentaries written upon his commentary. These are known as “supercommentaries,” and one of them, Siftei Chachamim, offers us an even more profound insight into Moses’ psyche. This author suggests that as Moses realized that his wisdom was failing him, he was better able to accept his impending death, for a life without wisdom would not be worth living.
Toward the end of this week’s Torah reading, indeed just at the point where maftir begins (Deuteronomy 31:28), we find Moses asking that all the elders again be assembled for him to address them. Here Rashi wonders why Moses did not simply call for the trumpets to be sounded, signaling that assembly was in order. After all, throughout the sojourn in the wilderness, Moses would gather the people to him by sounding the chatzotrot, the trumpets. Rashi suggests that at this moment, just before his death, Moses no longer had the symbols of power and authority available to him. He quotes Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 8:8), “There is no authority in the day of death.”
One of the lessons I learned from Dr. Kubler-Ross so very long ago is the importance of the helper, be he or she a family member or a professional, to help the patient reach this stage of acceptance of impending death. To help teach us about this stage of acceptance, she quoted the following poem by the Indian poet Tagore:
I have got my leave. Bid me farewell, my brothers! I bow to you all and take my departure. Here I give back the keys of my door — and I give up all claims to my house. I only ask for last kind words from you. We were neighbours for long, but I received more than I could give. Now the day has dawned and the lamp that lit my dark corner is out. A summons has come and I am ready for my journey.
Studying Parshat Vayelech gives us a unique opportunity to learn about what a man’s life is like in his last moments, as he prepares for his death. True, that man is Moses, and we cannot all aspire to his example. But there is, nevertheless, much to learn from this greatest of men, not only about how to live, but about how to die.