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The Denial of Death
By Saul Goldman
Often, I hear the bereaved tearfully protest: "he was such a good man!" In addition to the sadness, there is an incredulity against the unfairness of death. God did not play by the rules. Did we not atone and pray? We, like Job, despair of ever comprehending the meaning of suffering or the purpose of death. Because we are unable to confront the ineffable, we deploy a battery of psychological devices to shield its angst from our presence. One of these mechanisms is denial. We might ask, why deny the only inevitable event in our biological course? The answer, I believe, comes from the need to protect our sense of self.
Self-love is the basis for either our development or failure as persons. Watching children in their social interactions one sees the almost instinctive priority of self. Maturation or adolescence encompasses efforts to ameliorate this inflated self-importance; to round off the rough edges of ego and make room for others in our lives. Today, more than ever, individuals remain self-absorbed. This preoccupation with the self appears to be a by-product of our psychological legacy. For example, at one time the term "ego" appeared only in the technical literature of psychoanalysis and referred to the mental construct that regulated psychic processes. Today, ego has become a household word meaning, simplistically, the sense of self or me. Notions coined by Abraham Maslow such as "self-actualization" have become the new Torah of child-rearing. Happiness, the sages taught us, is the by-product of a good life. But, in the ego-centered ideology of today, happiness has become the goal toward which one strives.
Essentially, narcissm is a neutral quantum of psychic energy. When cultivated it provides individuals with healthy self-esteem. When distorted it projects a perverse sense of self-importance. Understanding this, the Torah enjoins us to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). Self-love is central to a healthy part of life. The Torah, however, makes it clear that "self" must be balanced by a concern for others. Hillel asked rhetorically: "if I am not for myself, who shall be for me; but if I am only for myself, what am I?" (Avot 1:14). While self-esteem is necessary for the development of a healthy person, self-centeredness, becoming our own ultimate concern, is tantamount to avodah zara or paganism (Baba Batra 15b).
One aspect of this self-indulgence is seen when man meets destiny. Scripture reminds us that our journey ends where it begins in the earth (Genesis 3:19). While there are sublime moments, our biological course remains constant. In despair over our trajectory, we lament the grave and employ unconscious mechanisms of denial. If we avoid the consciousness of death we undermine its purpose; to assure a good life. In Judaic tradition to live well means to live for others as much as we live for ourselves. This is the meaning of heroism. The Greek poet Pindar described the hero as one somewhere between the gods and men. The word itself is a cognate of the Greek for sacred (hieros). To be a hero means to strive to do something of great significance, to aspire to the sacred. Hillel's social dictum, taught at a time when Rome tried to annihilate Israel, addresses the human condition by accepting narcissm and projecting heroism. In other words, we are born with an instinctual self-love, an impulse for self-preservation. Growing up, however, means that we aspire to the heroic; to live beyond ourselves. It was during this bleak period in our history, that a number of daring men, like Bar Cochba and Eleazar ben Yair arose to challenge Rome. The closing years of the Second Commonwealth was a time of sadness, humiliation, messianic vision and heroism. It was a time, in the words of ben Yair, when death was understood to be the price of liberty. And without liberty we contravened the first apprehension of God as Liberator. In biblical theology, to live b'zelem would mean to live free.
Eventually, each of us asks the question what is the meaning of death? Akavia ben Mahalel reminds us, that death is our signpost (Avot 3:1). Death constitutes the fulcrum of our lives, upon which we lift ourselves toward harmony. It gives direction to our lives by showing that in the end all of us are, indeed, equals. That is, he who dies with the most toys, is still dead. The purpose of our lives is to care for each other and our world. This caring ranges from social justice to ecology. For who would harm those with whom we forever must share this earth? And who would despoil our common place of rest?
The denial of death induces selfishness. Our sages examined the heroic in human nature, and summed it up as "he who conquers his impulses"and exercises self-control (Avot 4:1). The selfishness we see in children, according to Becker, is all about their need for self-esteem or "cosmic significance". In other words, we are born with an instinct for greatness. In order to actualize this, we strive to be heroes. Usually, heroism is defined in terms of helping others, even at risk to ourselves. Soldiers in battle are usually decorated because they saved the lives of comrades rather than because they took the lives of enemies.
The obstacle to a virtuous life is our denial of death. The more our society engages us in this delusional activity, the more selfish we become. Our ability to make an imprint upon life demands that we live with full consciousness of our death. Our ancestors understood this. The psalmist anticipated Kierkegaard in making that sense of "fear and trembling" the foundation of true wisdom (Psalm 111:10). Yet, we have managed to avoid the totality and full meaning of death. Perhaps, our denial of death corresponds to our loss of the heroic. Men and women pile up dollars in their banks accounts, drive bigger cars and build larger houses in order to fabricate some sense of "significance". Beneath these trappings, however, is a consciousness that such efforts are transparently meaningless and silly. At funerals, I ask the mourners about their parents, about what they have learned from fathers and mothers. Sadly, such questions merely evoke an awkward response containing the usual cliches. Fewer children are taught about courage. More believe that their happiness was all that their parents ever desired.
While, on an intellectual plane, we appear to accept this reality, we have only managed to disguise it. For example, we have become very antagonistic toward the aging process and employ devices from hair coloring to potentially lethal surgical procedures. Perhaps, we try to hide the signs of our chronology because we sense that we have not yet matured. The sages described a zaken (elder) as one who has acquired wisdom" (Kiddushin 32b). So many of us have acquired possessions but little wisdom. No wonder then that we dye our hair, lift our faces and tan our bodies. What can be a sadder sight than to see someone who should be a "bubbe" by now, on her third face lift?! Because we fear death, we resent aging and because we aspire to so little, we trivialize the heroic.
Although we all confront that eventual trip to the funeral home, we have found ways to elude its hard reality. We make final arrangements even before the need arises so that we can get it out of the way and not "burden" our children. Yet, the burden of death is a sacred part of the life cycle which requires their participation. A growing number of people choose cremation as an alternative to funerals. The attraction of such a violent disposal of a corpse may lie in the way cremation short circuits the path from deathbed to earth. Others choose to have their bodies remain upon a concrete slab in some masoleum, as if we are not buried, then perhaps, we are not dead. Finally, we trivialize death, by "celebrating life". Quite often, I see the children and family gather and exclaim, we should not be sad; we must celebrate dad's life! In other words, if we refuse to grieve then there is no death.
The purpose of the eulogy is to find in someone's life the virtues and character that can be transmitted beyond death and that in some sense make our ancestors immortal. The ancients as well as some contemporary sects make believe that death is a joyous event because they see it as the continuation of life in the next world. Actually, the very idea of olam ha-ba, the world to come was a Pharisaic balm for an oppressed nation and an economically disadvantaged social class. For the next two millenia, Jewish life was lived as the vestibule to the "world to come". The possibility of life after death, however, was not intended to diminish our efforts and hopes for this life. Life, with its challenges, requires heroic deeds. The Jewish People found their courage in belong to an elite nation. Anyone familiar with the traditional blessings when called up to the Torah understand this call. We proclaim: asher bachar banu mi kol ha-amim, we were chosen from all the nations of the world to aspire and to make a difference, so that our legacy would comfort those who mourn us.
Today, we stand on a cosmic brink. One foot is planted tenuously in the messianic endeavor. We are engaged in rebuilding our homeland and gathering our dispersed. The other foot hovers over the abyss of a medieval spirituality that transparently covers our self-absorption. This ideology awaits a magical redemption and belittles our imperfect heroes as scoundrels. It ascribes to moral equivalency and political correctness. It has justified the exile and has withdrawn from the efforts of homecoming. In such an environment, where only the magical is taken seriously and where no one wants to be a hero, it is understandable that we deny death.
Only an acceptance of death can restore the yirah (angst) that promotes the wisdom to live well (Proverbs 1:7). Death is the measure with which we evaluate our lives. Not all lives were characterized by joy and celebration and certainly not every life aspired to greatness. But each life is worthy of consideration and thoughtful analysis. This is the purpose of death and the funeral; to learn from the deceased both what and what not to do and to allow our grief to guide us to insight and growth.
from the September 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine