The Law of Death is the Law of New Life: Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Shavuot Morning Yizkor Memorial Services

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the remarks of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on May 31, 2017 at Shavuot Morning and Yizkor Memorial Services at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH. It is inspired by the writings of our Jewish tradition and the historical letter from Henry David Thoreau to Ralph Waldo Emerson dated May 11, 1842, eleven days after the founding of the Anshe Chesed Society, the predecessor group who founded Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. We encourage you, if you wish, to share the link to this post by email with others, and to social media such as Facebook or Twitter, and to comment below if you wish to continue the dialogue represented by the topics herein.

The year was 1842 and the date March 11, less than two weeks after our synagogue Anshe Chesed was formed, an American icon named Henry David Thoreau waxed poetic in a letter to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau is best known as a paragon of American transcendentalist thought. But in this particular piece of his writing, although true to his philosophical tone, he seemed grounded by a realism that also was part of his outlook.

The subject of this note to Emerson was how to come to terms with loss and death. Thoreau wrote: “Death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident. It is as common as life. Men die in Tartary, in Ethiopia, in England, in Wisconsin. And, after all, what portion of this so serene and living nature can be said to be alive? Do this year’s grasses and foliage outnumber all the past? Every blade in the field, every leaf in the forest, lays down its life in its season, as beautifully as it was taken up.”

Then Thoreau continued. “It is the pastime of a full quarter of the year. Dead trees, sere leaves, dried grass and herbs—are not these a good part of our life? And what is that pride of our autumnal scenery but the hectic flush, the sallow and cadaverous countenance of vegetation? its painted throes, with the November air for canvas? When we look over the fields we are not saddened because these particular flowers or grasses will wither; for the law of their death is the law of new life.”

The law of their death is the law of new life. We could spend a semester studying literature that reflects this outlook. But a humanities education is not the order of the day. Today is Shavuot, the Jewish festival commemorating the gift of written scriptures that shape our lives in Jewish families. So instead, I encourage us to take Thoreau’s observations about the brief lifetimes of grasses, flowers and leaves and apply them to the teachings of all the sacred texts read and recited on this Shavuot holiday.

For example, the official Torah portion for this holiday is the Ten Commandments, the revelation at mount Sinai. I hear in the call of these commandments a recognition that the span of our lives is short, and a demand that we prioritize our fidelity to the ethics of the Ten Commandments in our limited time on earth. We are called by the commandments to make our lives characterized by the empathy and the honesty reflected in not stealing, or killing, or lying. Rather we are bidden to honor parents, demonstrate fidelity to God, and remember the Sabbath for all it can mean to us.

The portion from the Writings studied worldwide among the Jewish people on this holiday is Megillat Rut, the Scroll of Ruth, a beautiful story. Ruth’s compelling story conveys the answer to the question, using what resources do we survive when tragic loss strikes our family?

The book essentially begins with the death of Elimelech, leaving his wife Naomi and children to survive in the foreign territory where they settled among the Moabites. Though she was able to raise her sons and marry them off, each of her sons die without having had children to continue the family line. Naomi survives not alone, and not simply with nature as a comfort to her. Rather she survives this trauma buoyed by the devotion of her daughter in law Ruth, a Moabite woman who didn’t have to pledge her concern and love for her mother in law but saw that such empathic love and loyalty was needed. Though Naomi encouraged Ruth to separate from her, Ruth responded in exquisite words that conveyed her respect and reverence for her mother-in-law.

Ruth essentially said to Naomi: “Do not force me to leave you, to turn away and not follow your way. For where you go, I will go. Where you live, I want to live. Your people will be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, there too, I will die, and be buried. May God grant me this and more.”

It is an exquisite scene in the Bible. But I can only tell you that as a rabbi I have heard Ruth’s rhetoric replay itself in modern ways at the bedside of community members who were dying. The person who was ill would begin to try and shoo away their loved ones, telling them to go home, or go do something other than just watching them slowly die. The person sitting in an uncomfortable hospital recliner keeping vigil, looked incredulously at their loved ones. Then I have heard people say their own version of Ruth’s pledge. They say: “Don’t make me leave you. Where you are living, I want to be. When you meet God in the next world, I want to be holding your hand in this one. And one day, when it is my turn, I want to lie where you will lie.”

Just like in the case of Ruth, it doesn’t matter whether the person to whom you are devoted is officially family. Love and affection, devotion and loyalty that we cherish before we die, these things choose you. How else to explain why any of us travel across the world to stand by the side of bodies of water or to stare at magnificent vistas, when there are gorgeous national parks, lakesides, and inspiring paths to tread within a few minutes drive? We do that because there is somewhere inside us a memory to be relived at that place to which we have made pilgrimage. We went there to remember other beautiful places from earlier in our lives, and perhaps to give praise to the source of life who gave us beautiful sights to see and in whom to invest our wonder and amazement.

At this moment then I encourage you to take a moment silently to yourself, and let your mind’s eye travel you to one of those places, a beautiful waterfall or rainbow, a sand-dune you climbed when you were a kid. Perhaps you are remembering a shore where you remember the feeling of the water making the sand a perfect place to rest your feet. You might remember a farm or garden or vineyard where you picked vegetables or fruit fresh from the earth. Let a brief moment pass and be in company with that memory.

When you are ready, slowly return your thoughts to this place, to this chapel at our synagogue where you sit intimately among a  small group of people who are remembering sacred parts of their lives too. And listen with me… to the end Thoreau’s letter to Emerson. He wrote:

“Will not the land be in good heart because the crops die down from year to year? The herbage cheerfully consents to bloom, and then wither, and then give place to a new. So it is with the human plant…. [We must not] go into mourning for every severed leaf; but the more innocent and wiser soul will snuff a fragrance in the gale of autumn, and congratulate Nature upon her health.”

On this holiday, let us seek that innocence, that purity and the wisdom that reminds us that death is a very real part of our life.  Let us remember that we are here because our lives have been touched by both loss and renewal, and because someone, somewhere made a place for the newness and purity we once represented. May we remember that newness, that purity, and let it lift us to lives of loyalty and empathy and honesty, which will be a true gift for us all, Amen.