The thought that terrified me most when I was a teen-ager was that I would die before I figured out why I was alive in the first place. Premature deaths were uncommon, but I knew they happened, sometimes even close to home.
In 1973, just after I graduated from high school, our family friends’ daughter was killed while driving home after her freshman year of college. What made her death more chilling were the words my mother repeated for many years after it. She said the girl’s parents were haunted by one thought: if only she had forgotten something and gone back for it…
Sixteen years later, our neighbors’ teen-age daughter, their only child, was murdered in their backyard by her friend. Her parents were well-known members of the Jewish community and her death was an unspeakable horror. Shortly after it happened, the rabbi who had powerfully affected my husband and me two years earlier, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, came to speak in Pittsburgh. We knew that if anyone could offer them support, Rabbi Lipskar could, so we asked him if he would be willing to pay a condolence call.
I wasn’t at their meeting, but apparently it was so powerful that the couple included it years later in the book they wrote about the events surrounding their daughter’s death.
Rabbi Lipskar told them that their daughter was only destined to be on this earth until the very moment when she left it. Nothing could have changed that reality.
We are expected to learn from everything in life, including the circumstances surrounding a person’s death. But regarding the inevitability of the person’s actual passing when it happens, there’s no place for “if only…”
Now that we agree that our expiration dates are all preordained, can we talk about what we’re supposed to be doing in the meantime?
In light of recent tragedies, I am trying to strengthen my spiritual service and encourage anyone who will listen to do the same.
What I’m pondering is this: could the extreme pain and sense of indignation that many are feeling these days about death (this is too much, it’s not supposed to be this way) reflect how close we really are to the arrival of Moshiach, when it really won’t be this way?
Could this be because immortality feels within reach? In my very own lifetime, sixty went from being old to being young. (I’m not sure I’m totally objective here, but I think so.)
In human terms, previous generations accepted early demises as a given, occurring as early as infancy. Death was very much interwoven with life.
As Jews, our ancestors understood the risk of dying at the hands of an anti-Semite as a fact of life. Pogroms happened.
For us today in America, thank G-d, neither of these is part of normal life. We feel entitled to long and healthy years. And we’re right to feel that way, not only because so many do achieve this nowadays, but because it’s what G-d wants for us.
There’s just one little hitch.
Long and healthy years are not an end unto themselves. G-d wants us to acknowledge that our very life–and everything in life–is Him and only Him. And then, of course, He wants us to behave accordingly.
But G-d also created a paradox. In order to preserve our free choice (bechira) whether to experience Him or not, He has hidden Himself in nature and created us such that we feel ourselves to exist on our own, separately from Him.
Despite this, He asks us to transform our lives from a self-centered, physical existence into a G-d-centered one. This is my answer to my teen-age question. As demanding as the work is, it is still far better than not knowing why I’m here.
Although sometimes I’m not sure. Because knowing what I know makes it harder to live with the painful realities of this world, because I now know, it’s not supposed to be this way.
This world has passed its expiration date. What better time than now for us to ask G-d to send Moshiach, who will bring each and every one of us home?