Does life have any meaning if it all ends in death?
It is easy sometimes to become complacent, to feel invincible as we go about our lives. We triumph over the elements every single day. I can drive my car surrounded by feet of snow on either side, because humans created machines that can plow through the ice. We build cities in places where there are hurricanes.
Humanity always triumphs — except when we don’t. And then we feel extremely exposed and vulnerable.
When death comes close to you for the first time, it shakes you to your core. The aura of invincibility disappears. As a rabbi, I have grown accustomed, to the extent anyone can, to having death all around me: friends and community members have lost loved ones, and I have conducted their funerals.
But it had never hit home before I lost my father two years ago, and now, tragically again, my mother, just last week.
Get New Jersey Jewish News's Newsletter by email and never miss our top stories Free Sign Up
I’m the rabbi who leads the services on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesach, and Shavuot, but I always observed the tradition of walking out for Yizkor — the mourning service recited by those who have lost a parent or a close loved one — because my parents were still alive well into my fifties.
Then, suddenly, my father dies.
I’m saying Yizkor. I’m now one of the guys who stays in. Even my wife, thank God, goes out. But she leaves me behind to say the remembrance prayer with those who have lost a parent.
I recited the prayers for Yizkor for the first time in a communal setting on Yom Kippur in a small service with maybe 23 men and seven women, because of the pandemic. There was a 13-year-old boy who lost his mother, and we said Yizkor together.
Reflecting on the experience months later, just before Super Bowl LV, I thought of football metaphors. A child is like a quarterback protected by a front line of guards. That’s your mother and father. Once they’re gone, you can be sacked by the Angel of Death. You have little protection. It might not happen for 30 years. But there is still the sense that you’re next. You’re now on the front lines.
That challenged me to confront the feeling of meaninglessness in life.
Why does it all matter, if everything ends in death?
That’s one of the eternal questions. Different belief systems have distinct answers.
The Christian answer is that you needn’t worry about your mortal life: it’s redeemed by everlasting life in the hereafter. It’s not true that death snatches you away. Death is really a transition to a higher life, a better reality. (I hated that at my mother’s passing, the doctors and the nurses in the hospital used the word “transitioning.”)
I get it, but it’s not how I want to deal with death. I don’t want to put the next world ahead of this one.
Judaism has a different answer. We won’t be hanging out with angels in some paradise with pearly gates in the hereafter. When the messiah comes, we will rise again and cure disease, end hunger, love our neighbors, and make our children feel infinitely valuable. We will make heaven here on earth.
Jews being Jews, of course, we have multiple interpretations of the messianic age. Nachmanides, for example, believes the material world we now inhabit will be more perfect, more angelic. No war. No disease. No competition that leaves us feeling inadequate. Everlasting peace. Everlasting life. The world to come, according to Nachmanides, is this world, in the perfect way it will be when the messiah comes.
Maimonides said the world won’t be perfect; there will be death, even the messiah will die, but we will not live with the same anxiety we do today. That will enable us to live for hundreds of years, like the figures in the Bible who did not have our level of pressure.
Chabad especially believes that loss is not permanent. Those who are dead are destined to rise again. It is one of the 13 most important principles of Judaism. I of course believe that, and it is a source of comfort. That’s why we pray for the Messiah, and the rebbe constantly demanded “moshiach now.”
The popular conception of an afterlife that is only a disembodied existence in heaven has little appeal for me. Who wants to be in a world without family, where you have nothing to contribute?
In this world, I matter. I matter to my family. I matter to my community. I matter to my wife and children, thank God. Part of our responsibility is to perfect the world, to bring about that messianic epoch. Little by little, we are progressing, and we will enjoy the rewards of our efforts when the messiah comes.
When I told the family we were going to bury my father in the Mount of Olives cemetery, my daughter Rochel Leah was listening. She said, “I will never forget you said we’re burying him on Har Hazeitim” — the Mount of Olives — “where the dead will be resurrected when mashiach” — the messiah — “arrives.” She told me later, “I couldn’t believe that this perfectly rational man, who reads Voltaire and philosophy, someone so academic, so smart, and so philosophical, would talk about something as spiritual as his father being buried in the place where resurrection was happening first. I cannot tell you how much that impacted me.”
She was right. I’ve always tried to present Judaism rationally. Still, I don’t think that life abruptly ends. I think people’s value extends far beyond a lifespan of just 70 or 80 years.
I also believe in the resurrection of the dead, despite how illogical that may sound. I believe that one day we will all be reunited. It’s a staple of Jewish belief. And it’s not as crazy as it may seem.
When I was the rabbi at Oxford, I hosted Dr. Christiaan Barnard, maybe the most famous doctor in the world after he performed the first heart transplant in 1967. I had the chance to travel around parts of England with him. We had an amazing time together.
I asked him what he was working on. He said, “The world’s oldest disease.”
“What’s that?” I wondered aloud.
“Old age,” he replied. “Why should we accept that people have to deteriorate? Why can’t people live forever?”
It sounded far-fetched then, but think about all the technology we have now that was beyond the imagination of our ancestors. The technology I witness today is beyond anything I could have imagined when I was a boy.
Today, I can take a video of myself on my cell phone and, voilà, people around the world can hear and see me on their phones, tablets, and computers just seconds later. I can type on a keyboard and have access to more information than anyone would ever have thought possible just a short time ago. We have landed a man on the moon, our space probes have left the solar system, and we have rovers moving around Mars.
For many people, the idea of the dead coming back to life is absurd or immoral, a failure to learn the lesson of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
We can’t yet bring someone back from the dead, but I don’t know what will be possible in the future. In a way, scientists already have resurrected the dead. Barbra Streisand made headlines when she revealed that she had her dog cloned. After it died, cells were taken from its mouth and stomach to produce two identical animals. Apparently, you too can clone your pet for $50,000. So a lot of the things that were thought to be fantastic and futuristic are no longer impossible (even as some might see dog-cloning as frivolous).
For me, the resurrection is an article of faith rather than science, and the belief that one day I will be reunited with my father and my mother gives me great comfort.
Jews also do not believe that our mortality makes life meaningless, because our impact remains after we’re gone. The Talmud says that our patriarch Jacob never died, but the Bible says he was buried. I’ve gone to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, where Jewish tradition says he is buried. The Talmud (Taanit 5b) explains that there is no contradiction, because Jacob’s children continued his legacy, and he lived on through them: “Since his descendants are alive, he is alive.”
Still, clichés persist because they have an element of truth, and that is certainly the case with the old saw that “you can’t take it with you.” My father worked so hard to build his business, and it took so much of his time and energy that he sacrificed precious time with his family. And what was left in the end? They put my father into the ground without even a coffin. (Israel doesn’t bury the dead in coffins.) We are dust and must return to dust. He was wrapped in a simple, inexpensive burial shroud. The business he owned was left behind, his real legacy being the many good deeds he performed and his children’s love and devotion.
It makes you question the point of your life’s work. I looked at the books I authored, the organizations I built, and while I’m immensely proud of them, it’s easy to start to feel that the ephemerality of life shows that it isn’t ultimately worth anything, given how transient it all is. But family is eternal. Family is everything.
That’s why it is so important to find purpose in your life. And this is especially true after the death of your parents.
I think about the Lubavitcher rebbe. He conquered the Jewish world. He opened Chabad houses around the globe. People forget that the rebbe became the head of the movement when he was 51 years old, and everything that he achieved in revolutionizing Judaism was done from the time he was 51 until he was 92. I thought he also was invincible and could not die — until I got the call, ironically from my father, that the rebbe had passed away.
I’m just a few years older than the rebbe was when he began his incredible and awe-inspiring mission to spread Judaism near and far, to embrace Jews who had lost touch with tradition, and to impart wisdom to a generation of followers. What might I accomplish in the next 40 years if, God willing, I live at least into my 90s?
The death of my father and my mother has forced me to face my own mortality. There was a sturdiness to me when my parents were alive, a feeling that my world was complete. I told a friend that after my parents passed away, it felt like whole sections of my body had been cut off, but that doesn’t even capture it, because it’s an emotional rather than a physical loss.
I don’t really understand what I’m missing. Thank God, I do have two arms and two legs, but something inside me has changed — something in my mind has shifted. I feel different psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, maybe even physically,
You can overcome pain and adversity if you’re strong. You can deal with emotion. When it comes to facing mortality and being aware that death is a part of life, it can be too much.
I want to face my own mortality, and death in general, because you can’t live in fear all the time.
I think that grief and mourning can make you schizophrenic. You live halfway between the world of the living and the world of the dead. God was very kind to me until my father died. I was 53. I had not experienced loss, thank God. I was like much younger people who think they are invincible. Of course it is naïve, but I thought I was never going to experience loss during my entire life. After my father had a catastrophic stroke, I still didn’t think he would die. It was unimaginable that death would have the chutzpah to invade my life on any level. It was impossible to think that a man as Herculean as my father could ever succumb to death.
And then, just two years later, my mother, who seemed to be in the most excellent health, got ill and died in exactly one month. I am in utter shock at her loss, especially as a single mother who raised me with unparalleled sacrifice.
If you ask me whether I think I’m going to die, which is a terrible question to ask, my answer is no.
One way to think about life is that you have plenty of time, and therefore you can live a carefree existence. I’m not talking about the sense of invincibility of the young, who have had little life experience and sometimes behave recklessly. I don’t take unnecessary risks as if I’m a superhero who can’t be hurt. I’m referring to feeling unpressured by the inevitability of death and the accompanying need to get things done while there is still time. I’ve adopted a more laissez-faire attitude — if I can’t do something today, there’s always tomorrow. When you don’t live under a cloud, when you don’t live under the shadow of death, you’re happier and more optimistic.
Alternatively, if you think that life is going to end at some point, you’re more careful with your time, more introspective, but maybe also a bit more depressed.
Look at what we’ve all gone through since the coronavirus pandemic. However unsexy death and grief and mourning were before, they are especially unsexy now, because the news is filled with stories about the dead and dying. During the pandemic the media tallied the depressing number of fatalities in the seemingly endless and losing war with the virus, and some channels kept it on screen throughout the day as a reminder of the fragility of life. Each day, we heard tragic stories of people who were taken too young, who were healthy until stricken, who took all the right precautions and still got sick, who had dedicated their lives as doctors and nurses to save others and were exposed while treating covid-19 patients and died. It all began with a handful of cases, and our president reassured use that the virus would disappear. But it only grew worse. Hospitals were overrun, at one point freezer trucks had to be used to handle all the corpses in New York, elective surgeries had to be postponed. Worst of all, covid-19 patients had to be isolated from their loved ones. Their families could not visit to provide comfort or to be with them when they died.
The result of all of this is that death seemed to be everywhere, while mourning had become more difficult. There are so many mourners, and yet those who are not directly impacted didn’t recognize the magnitude of the losses. They wanted the survivors to get over it and to move on to return to the old normal with the rest of us. In the process, life had been degraded.
Would it be better to admit to yourself that you’re not going to live forever? Maybe it is irrational, but perhaps we can achieve more during our lives by believing in our immortality, even as we make essential preparations for our demise. I believe in having a will. I believe in making arrangements for burial. I believe in instructing your children in what you expect from them as a family after you’re gone and communicating your core values. But making much of your life a preparation for the afterlife? No, I don’t believe in that.
We should not become King Tut.
Yes, if you count your days, you live differently. And I do believe we have to cherish every moment of life. Maybe having death always before us causes us to live more humbly. Maybe it makes us less materialistic or professionally ambitious, because we can see that in the grand scheme of things, it’s all pretty ephemeral. But it also leaves us feeling powerless and impotent, when Judaism insists that each of us has the power to alter history and repair the world.
Since my parents’ passing, I decided on the one hand that I just want more peace. Focus on reconciliation and brotherhood. I’m not in the mood to get in a fight with anyone. But then, I read the news each day and I see — like at no time since the Holocaust — that the Jewish people are under attack, and it’s my duty to join the fight against those who would harm us.
And I’ve decided that in the face of death, we Jews must choose life. And sometimes choosing life means fighting for it, even if it robs you of peace.
Perhaps if he were Jewish, Descartes would have said, “I fight, therefore I am.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.