We Also Recommend
One of the great Jewish spiritual teachers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that facing death gives life meaning; that life and death are both part of a greater mystery; that by virtue of being created in no less than God’s image, we can imagine an afterlife for humanity–yet at the same time death itself is an antidote to human arrogance; and that in death we pay gratitude for the wonder and gift of our existence. These passages are excerpted from Heschel’s essay "Death as Homecoming", published in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).
Death as a Way to Understand the Meaning of Life
Our first question is to what end and upon what right do we think about the strange and totally inaccessible subject of death? The answer is because of the supreme certainty we have about the existence of man: that it cannot endure without a sense of meaning. But existence embraces both life and death, and in a way death is the test of the meaning of life. If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd. Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death.
The fact of dying must be a major factor in our understanding of living. Yet only few of us have come face to face with death as a problem or a challenge. There is a slowness, a delay, a neglect on our part to think about it. For the subject is not exciting, but rather strange and shocking.
What characterizes modern man’s attitude toward death is escapism, disregard of its harsh reality, even a tendency to obliterate grief. He is entering, however, a new age of search for meaning of existence, and all cardinal issues will have to be faced.
Life as a Way to Understand the Meaning of Death
Death is grim, harsh, cruel, a source of infinite grief. Our first reaction is consternation. We are stunned and distraught. Slowly, our sense of dismay is followed by a sense of mystery. Suddenly, a whole life has veiled itself in secrecy. Our speech stops, our understanding fails. In the presence of death there is only silence, and a sense of awe.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.