Into each life comes parting and loss. As we age, these occurrences increase, become more frequent and constitute one of the challenges of growing old.
With age comes personal history. One lives and has experiences, many gratifying but others burdensome. Cherished friends die, others move away, and one is left with a sense of loss and an understanding that life itself is fragile and fleeting.
The temporary nature of human existence is ingrained in Jewish thought by holidays like Sukkot, when the small, fragile booth we erect for a week is a reminder of our short journey on this Earth. On the High Holy Days we are reminded of our dependence and vulnerability as we pray for renewal and the chance to live another year. On a national level, we are conscious of our people’s losses on Purim, Tisha B’Av and Yom Hashoah.
And yet, for all that recognition of personal loss and national precariousness is woven into the very fabric of Jewish ceremony and ritual, there is little real understanding, or discussion of the implications of this sober reality. We tend to commemorate the aforementioned occasions without connecting them to our personal lives and the inner meaning they hold for us.
Do we not engage with the reality of our mortality because the prospect is too depressing, too overwhelming? But if that’s the case, why is the subject virtually unavoidable in Jewish life cycles and religious life? What is the purpose of placing front and centre the idea of life as a mere shadow? Are we to agree with Macbeth that, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more”?
Surely, the acknowledgement of human mortality in Jewish history and liturgy is meant to ennoble as much as to humble. Life can only have real meaning if it is finite, so that time and life become precious. Otherwise, we would not value it and try to make the most of it. We are challenged to achieve and accomplish, in part, because we will not live forever.
Inherent in the truth of our mortality is the sad reality that we came into this world and we must leave it. It is humbling in the extreme and it is why, I suspect, most people avoid the issue entirely when Judaism expects us to face it and internalize its lesson.
The lesson is everywhere in Jewish writing. The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot) declares that “It is not up to you to complete the task but neither are you free to desist from it”. Because we are mortal, we will not complete everything we set out to achieve, but that does not exempt us from the responsibility to undertake initiatives and to do as much as we can. A rabbinic story tells of an old man planting a tree. A young man asks him why he is planting, since he will not live to taste the fruit of the tree. The old man responds that he is planting for the next generation, just as the previous generation planted for him.
Mortality teaches, not just the fleeting nature of life, but its interconnectedness – the links from generation to generation, as well as those within each generation. We are called upon to do good deeds and contribute something valuable, not in spite of our mortality, but because of it.
With each parting and every loss, there is inevitable sadness and pain. The emotion accompanying the parting and loss serve to emphasize the importance of love and life, and the need to act every day with a heightened awareness of the precious gift of friends, family and community.
I believe Judaism’s emphasis on our vulnerability is, in fact, an invitation to be conscious of our common humanity and the need for us to create a society of value and a life of meaning.
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.