June 2, 2023
What would you do, what would you give up, to save the life of someone you love?
In reality, the question is, for better or worse, a non-starter. Even in our darkest hours, knowing the worst will come, despite our best efforts to bargain and plead, there is not much we can do when The End comes. But what if there was?
Reading the following line from this week’s Torah portion, as God tells Moses to “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any men or women explicitly utter a nazirite’s vow, to set themselves apart for יהוה… (Numbers 6:2), zapped me back into Eternal Life, Dara Horn’s 2018 novel. The story features Rachel, a woman who grew up in the shadow of the 2nd Temple, in 1st century CE Jerusalem, who, in order to save her baby (who will grow up to become Yochanan ben Zakkai!), makes a very particular vow in before the priests. Rachel believes she is taking the aforementioned nazirite vow, which would dedicate her to a lifetime of service in the Temple, symbolically exchanging her life for her child’s wellbeing. But, the priest tells her, this vow will actually trade, not simply her life, but her death, for her son’s life, making her immortal…
On its face, this might seem like a fair trade for a mother to make (especially, knowing what the audience knows: that this baby will grow up to, in short, save the whole of Judaism from certain demise, and help the tradition evolve after the Temple’s destruction into the tradition as we know it!). But, through Rachel’s voice and choices, in so many beautiful and heartbreaking ways, Eternal Life asks, with “forever” at one’s disposal, what becomes of the value of life? When Rachel goes through “version” after “version,” as she calls the hundreds of lifetimes she lives, the families she begins and inevitably outlives, again and again and again… we might begin to understand why we, as humans, painful as it is to lose those we love, are not meant to live forever.
In the past few weeks, death has touched an extraordinary number of people in my life, and I have been a part of many conversations with the immediate mourner, asking: Why this person, my person? Why now? What comes next? And honestly, I don’t know how to answer these questions, and am not sure there are answers – at least not any that are emotionally- or intellectually satisfying. What I do know is this: Jewish tradition teaches that above all else, life is precious; that pikuach nefesh, the saving or preservation of life, is paramount, such that even the staunchest law-abiding Jew is commanded to break Shabbat and other mitzvot for its sake. And, to complicate that, I believe the Torah – including the ways this week’s Torah portion discusses the value of each person and personal sacrifice – and Eternal Life are trying to teach us that life must be fiercely protected, that it is precious and powerful because it is fragile and finite; that because we don’t have forever, one of the ways toward creating a meaningful life is by doing all we can, while we can, to cherish and honor those in our lives at every opportunity.
The Mishkan T’filah has many poetic kavannot, intentions, in advance of the Mourner’s Kaddish, and this one, by Rabbi Chaim Stern z”l, has been on my mind through all of these conversations with my grieving friends and loved ones. I offer it here in hopes that, while it does not answer those big, unanswerable questions we face a times of loss, it will nonetheless bring a fragment of comfort and remind each of us, this Shabbat and always, of the preciousness and sanctity of our uncertain, fragile lives, destined to be marked and shaped by our joy and by our grief or, in short, by the sacred experience of being human.
It is a fearful thinking to love
What death can touch.
A fearful thing to love,
hope, dream: to be –
To be, and oh! to lose.
A thing for fools this, and
a holy thing,
a holy thing to love.
your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings a painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing to love,
a holy thing,
what death can touch.
Rabbi Jenn Queen