Death and Meaning

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September 1, 2003
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By David Wolpe

When reading a novel, we almost invariably flip the pages to see how many remain until the end. For we always know when stories of imagination will end. The movie will run a few hours, the book so many pages. We do not know how they will end, but we know when. This is a major difference between a true story and an invented one: in life we cannot count the pages or check the clock. The end of our story could come at any moment, or not for years.

We tell stories of life in retrospect, and our tale is determined in large measure by the ending. Sudden death colors everything about a life. Illness becomes the dominant strain of a life that was about so many other things. To modify Shakespeare a bit, all too often nothing so defines a life as the leaving of it.

There is both certainty and mystery in limitation. We know life will end but not when; we know that death defines life but we seek to minimize its power. Kabbalah associates the left side of the sefirot with limitation and negation. The essential religious insight in addressing the mystery of death is that all creation necessitates restriction: the picture its frame, the story its denouement, the life its death. The Garden of Eden is the unreachable vision of infinitude; we live in limitation.

Yet we continually return to the question, unanswerable but unavoidable: do we argue for the necessity of death because we are confronted by its inevitability? Do we glorify limits because we have no choice? Would we design the world with death if we were beginning anew?

Death is so overwhelming a reality that for most of our waking lives we live in functional denial of its all-obliterating force. Death is the end of everything we cherish: mountains, books, dreams, other people. We cannot be certain of another life. We can only be certain of the end of this one.Ultimately there is no resolution. William James explained it in a vivid image: no matter how joyous the feast, a skull grins at the end of the banquet. Nonetheless the quest for understanding death cannot be too quickly dismissed.

This summer my family took a trip to see the great sequoias of Yosemite. Early in the century, the naturalists who tended the forest took great care to avoid fires. As soon as a fire threatened or broke out, they rushed to extinguish it. The forest rangers, however, did not realize what role fire plays in the ecosystem. Through periodic burning, it cleans the brush and ensures that larger, more devastating fires do not destroy mature trees. Moreover, fire clears space for the sun to reach the forest floor and foster new growth. With the salutary blazes prevented, giant fires did break out, destroying large sections of the forest that are only now regaining equilibrium.

For the individual trees saved by the policy of fire prevention, the policy seemed beneficent. They were spared. But in time the policy threatened to engulf the forest.

Death is the fire that consumes our lives. Without it, there would be no space for new growth. The world would be choked; life would be rendered without poignancy and yearning. But it is almost blasphemous to suggest a theological justification to someone in the coils of loss. On an individual level we cannot avoid the feeling of the spared tree in the forest: Dear God, we know that death must come, but not to me, not to the one I love, not now.

How do we reconcile these contradictory and painful realizations? For those who see death not as final, but just a stop along the journey, there is a measure of peace. The afterlife is a great comfort, so much so that we borrow the rhetoric of afterlife even for secular images: the memory lives on; the influence never dies. For those with doubts, there remains the knowledge that death is the great shared fate: as Hemingway put it, all true stories end in death.

A world with no end would be a life with no urgency. That is as much as we are given in this life to understand. Faith in God brings with it faith in the wisdom of the order of things. When we cannot count the pages, perhaps we can nonetheless trust the Author of all.

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David Wolpe, a Sh'ma Contributing Editor, is Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. He is the author, most recently, of Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times.

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