Friday, 14 November 2014

Love Is Stronger Than Death

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Bereishit 23:1-25:18; 1 Kings 1:1-31; Mt 1:1-17; 1 Cor 15:50-57

After Sarah Imanu (our mother) dies in this week's parsha (which some say is due to finding out what almost happened to Yitzhak in last week's parsha) it says "vayavo Avraham lispod l' Sarah v'livkotah", and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), known as "the Rav", comments on this parsha that there is a difference between "mourning" (lispod) and weeping (livkotah). Weeping refers to the primal release of grief. Mourning (hesped), which also means "eulogy", is not primarily an emotional process but an intellectual one. Hesped is the process of fully understanding, with as much accuracy and holism as possible, what you have lost. This is an essential part of the Torah approach to death, says the Rav (basing himself on the Talmud). This sounds excruciating, and no doubt it is. Yet in order to honour the dead, and I would think also, to honour oneself, it seems necessary. One should first review everything that has been lost with the death of the loved one, then let that full knowledge pour out in one's primal grief. 

I am struck here by what what might call the "nonBuddhist", or "nonstoic" nature of this advice. Not only is one not discouraged from grief, or counselled into a more "enlightened" response based on accepting impermanence, the focus here is on grieving fully and "properly". 

As we learn in the Brit Hadashah, even God weeps. When Yeshua learns of the death of Elazar (Lazarus), his friend and the brother of his disciples Miriam and Marta of Beit-Aniya (Yochanan 11:33), he is not stoic but deeply grieved. We should perhaps remember here that death was not God's hope for humankind. Had Adam and Chavah rested in the emunah (faith/trust) they were called to in the garden instead of choosing "their own possibilities" (Bonhoeffer) they would have remained in gan eden and eaten of the Tree of Life. Death grieves God. 

In that same chapter of Yochanan Yeshua comforts Marta by saying "Your brother will rise". She says that she knows he will rise in the techiyas hamesim (resurrection), but Yeshua assures her that he in fact means right now. Elazar will arise when his death is touched by the source of life, the Living Word. 

In this week's Brit Hadashah reading Rav Sha'ul affirms that "the shofar will sound, and the dead will be raised (1 Cor 15:52)". Quoting Hoshea, he says (15:55),

O death, where are your plagues?
O grave, where is your victory? 

In one of his shocking locutions Sha'ul goes on to say (in my translation based on Hoshea's Hebrew) that the plague leading to death is sin, and the power of sin is the Torah (15:56). In other words, sin leads to death on the authority of the Torah. Yet- thanks be to God who keeps giving us the victory through our Lord Yeshua the Messiah! (TLV).  The amazing implication of this is that Yeshua gives us victory over the power of condemnation for failing to fulfill the Torah, and thus breaks the authority which which sin kills us. This is a vision of Yeshua Hago'el, Yeshua the redeemer. 

Joyful, with all the strength I have my trembling lips shall sing:
Where is your boasted victory grave? And where is the monsters sting?
So let us praise the God of victory
Immortal hope for mortal flesh
So let us praise the God of victory
Who makes us conquerors in death. 
(Isaac Watts 1674-1748) 

This is the amazing offer present in Yeshua, Hashem's amazing grace. And though we will still will and still should grieve our losses here, surely some balm is mixed with death's sting in knowing we will rise again, and be reunited, through the undeserved grace and mind-boggling sacrifice of Yeshua Mashiach. Gazing in Yeshua's eyes, which filled with tears for us fixed themselves on the cross, we in turn may smile amidst our tears. In the dark night of death a sun rises.

In the Zen tradition there is a saying that one always needs to have "two eyes". The meaning is that one needs on the one hand to view things as ephemeral and merely external. On the other hand one needs to navigate those very ephemerals wisely. In a similar way we are not to suppress our grief because of our faith in the resurrection. Yeshua did not. Yet even while grieving for our loss in this life, we should simultaneously remember that a day will come when every tear will be wiped away, and let our mourning be tempered by that sweetness.

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