Berkeley recently decided to take a break from the drought – it rained all day on Friday, and I remembered asking my father why the rain falls when I was a little girl.
“The angels are crying – someone just died,” my father replied.
“I don’t know,” my father shrugged. “But it sure is a nice idea.”
In the final chapter of After One-Hundred-and-Twenty, Hillel Halkin describes a long midrash about the death of Moses. The Torah is silent about how Moses reacts to his death, but the Rabbinic commentary fleshes out Moses’ humanity. The way Moses reacts to his impending death is not all that different from how most humans react to death. Moses argues with God, evades angels, and begs to live on as an animal. In the end though, Moses’ life is taken by God with a kiss and within sight of the Promised Land that Moses never reaches. After the death of Moses, God wept, and I wondered if it rained that day.
After One-Hundred-and-Twenty is Halkin’s own midrash or commentary on Jewish perspectives of death, mourning, and the afterlife. He weaves his own humanity and stories into a remarkable work of scholarship. At the beginning of the book, Halkin acknowledges that Jewish perspectives on death are diverse and pointed out that he has his own biases. Thus, Halkin writes as himself and encourages readers to find themselves between the lines, which I did.
As a child, I was always sickly and on the brink of death. I wrote a will when I was nine years old and listed the possessions I was giving away to various family members. Eventually, I ran out of possessions and began giving away wisdom until I realized that I would never finish this will. I tucked it away between the pages of my favorite book, unfinished. Similarly, Halkin describes the Jewish tradition of “Ethical Wills,” which are letters of advice to one’s children close to death. He considers writing letters to his daughters for all of the birthdays he would not be with them for after his death, but he never gets around to writing the letters because he realizes that he would never be able to say all he wants to say to them.
We all have our own Promised Land full of the things we will never do or say before we die, and this is the terrible beauty of the human condition. According to Genesis, death has been a part of human life ever since Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God. Halkin explains that there is a famous argument between Rabbis Shammai and Hillel, and their Houses disagree on whether it is better to die or to be born. The House of Shammai argues that it is better to die because life exposes the soul to the risk of sin and permanent exile from heaven. I am more inclined to agree with the House of Hillel, which argues that it is better to be born because life is an adventure in which the soul is given the chance to find its way back to the divine. After reading the story of Genesis, I have always found human brokenness and Original Sin to be profoundly beautiful because it must be much more meaningful to fall from and then journey back to Eden than to remain in Eden and never truly understand what one has. In this journey, perhaps there is tikkun, which, in the context of Kabballah, means to repair spiritual fractures in the soul and all of creation.
The Lurianists believes souls reshuffle themselves throughout time until the disordered world is ordered correctly. Until that happens, death will continue to be a reality in human life – it will take the souls of those we love, and we will mourn them. Judaism provides structure and community for those who are mourning: the Mishnah lists the stages of mourning, which last for a year, Shiva ensures that mourners are not left alone, Tahara instructs us how to bury the dead, and the Kaddish redeems dead parents. Judaism tends to frown on things that imply one can communicate or influence the dead, but the Kaddish seems to be one notable exception. If one neglects saying the Kaddish, it means that one is indifferent to the fate of the dead. To me, saying the Kaddish appears to be a true act of faith – no one truly knows if it redeems the souls of the dead, but those who say it believe it does, which is its own kind of truth.
Hillel Halkin wrote this book because he has reached an age where death is on his mind a lot. He hopes that death will come to him like it did for Moses – with a kiss.
As for my own death, I hope it rains.
Paige Foreman is an editorial intern at Tikkun and is currently studying for her Masters in Social Transformation at the Pacific School of Religion. As a seminary student she’s exploring the intersection between interfaith work, social justice activism, and the arts.
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