One who has suffered the loss of a close relative, and is waiting to bury them, is exempted from Shema, prayer, Tefillin and any other positive commandments.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Brachot 3:1) helps us understand this. it reminds us of Deuteronomy 16:3 – ‘that you may remember the day you came forth from the land of Egypt all the days of your life’ – and deduces that you should remember on the days when you are dealing with life, not on the days when you are dealing with death.
What are being given here is a very clear injunction to think about death, to consider our mortality.
It is hard to gauge quite how much of our mental energy we dedicate to denying our mortality. To varying degrees we kind of know that we are going to die, but it less clear whether we have really absorbed that insight.
In his phenomenally good book ‘The Denial of Death’, Ernest Becker argues that we repress our knowledge and fear of death. This in turn leads to us being afraid of all sorts of other things, which the mind substitutes for death. The unconscious ‘fear’ triggered by death is transferred onto other objects and we consequently spend a lifetime fighting the wrong battles. We would, he contends, find a much more direct path to contentment were we to stare death in the face, to acknowledge its presence and to accept it. Our craving for immortality would subside, and we would learn to see more of reality for what it is, helping with our general ability to accept and appreciate our lot.
It seems that the Talmud here is backing up this line of thinking. In a time of mourning, we will experience a sense of loss, and a part of this loss will be the realisation of how easily our world can be emptied. Freud describes the experience of mourning thus:
Painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity… In mourning it is the world that has become poor and empty. (Mourning and Melancholia 244-6)
Faced with this abyss, confronted with our deepest fear and the fragility of life, we might think that we would turn to Judaism, to the transitional objects of our practice, as a means to overcome or escape this despair.
No. Quite simply, this is not the path we are to follow. The Jewish religion helps to build our sense of life, to enrich it, to alert us to its possibilities. But it is not given to us to abuse for the denial of our mortality, of our humanity, of the darker side of life.
When circumstances bring death into our path, we must pause and absorb it, we must become fully conscious of it.
And I think there is a more general message here, that Judaism is not given to us to create a falsely sweet and pretty picture of reality. It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of life, a point Rav Soloveitchik makes throughout his writings. Rather, in the opposite direction, it gives us the conceptual and ritual tools to grapple with the murkier and more confusing aspects of reality, sometimes even helping us make contact with them. In doing so, it allows the unconscious to give expression to them, to symbolise them, and provides some means for containing and absorbing the resultant emotions.
The Talmud proceeds with a narrative of Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yonatan walking through a graveyard where Rabbi Yonatan’s tzitzit were dragging over the gravestones. Rabbi Hiyya chastised him for this, letting him know that he was insulting the dead.
We then get side-tracked into a huge debate about whether the dead know things, and what it is that they might know. We encounter the dead in a number of ‘Six Feet Under’ type scenes and some of the argumentation has to be read to be believed. (As an aside, whereas everyone watching ‘Six Feet Under’ understands that talking to the dead is a narrative device, an externalisation of an inner dialogue, people reading the Talmud often don’t allow themselves to see things that way.)
But the question of what the dead actually know or feel is irrelevant. Rabbi Hiyya is rejecting Rabbi Yonatan’s haughty arrogance, his sense of immortality, his lack of respect for death. ‘Show some consciousness of your mortality Rabbi Yonatan’, that is what he’s telling him. ‘Respect death as you do the Divine Presence – for both are given 4 cubits in this world.’
There is no greater challenge than finding the balance between the faithful and optimistic spirit we have spoken about in the past, and acknowledging the fragility of our weak and mortal existence. In the spirit of this paradox the Kotzker Rebbe advised us to carry a piece of paper in each pocket. One would say ‘The world was created for me’, the other would say ‘Man is nothing but the dust of the earth’.
Being able to live with paradox, to ride the emotional waves generated by their irreconcilability, this is some of what we hope to take from our culture. In doing so we embrace the spirit of Rabbi Hiyya, understanding when it is the time for life, and understanding when we must give death its space.