SHMINI ATZERET 5778
At this Yizkor hour, let me share with you what happened to meat the end of last June. Cheryl and I were called to the deathbed of my father. What do you say? I knew I had to say something. My father had arrived at the limit of his life, when he could not do one thing more. But he had yet to do this—to die. My father had known for some time that he would have to do this. He had thought about it, prayed and wanted to die.
When you’re called upon to be there when your father is at the limit of his life…you’re at the limit of your powers of language. There is something to be said but you’re not sure what it is. The nurses say, “I am glad you’ve come!” They’ve done their part making him feel comfortable and dignified. The nurses and the physicians know that now you must do something that they cannot do. You have to say something to the one who is dying. What can you say? You have to say something that language cannot say.
I know someone, who, when he was summoned to his mother’s deathbed, didn’t go. It was too frightening, too much responsibility, and he was demoralized by the terrible fear of having nothing to say—as if by being speechless, he, himself was being carried away into the region of death and silence of the person who was dying.
Cheryl and I summoned up the courage to go. What should I say? If I end up saying something like, “It’ll be all right, Dad.” Then I would feel stupid because I know it’s not going to be all right—and so does my Dad. He knows that he’s dying and he’s braver than me. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What was important was that I and Cheryl were there. Maybe what was important was that our hands held his hand as he was dying, and that the warmth of our voices joined with his breath as he breathed his last breaths. Maybe it was important that the light of our eyes met his, as his eyes began to look beyond the void, beyond the darkness of death into the intense light of the other side.
Tomorrow we will read of the death of Moses. It’s a story we began reading a couple of weeks ago. The children of Israel were summoned to watch as Moses went off to die—just as children have always been summoned to the deathbed of their parents from time immemorial. His time had come. And Gd spoke to Moses b’etzem hayom hazeh (in the middle of the day), and said to him (Deut. 32:50): “Moses, you shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and you’ll be gathered to your people.”
None of us choose the moment of our death, but why did Gd insist that Moses die in the middle of the day, when everyone would be standing about watching and wondering? Why not in the small hours of the night, in peace, in quiet, in private? Rashi comments about 2 other stories in the Torah which happen,b’etzem hayom hazeh (in the middle of the day), in the glare of public attention.
B’etzem hayom hazeh (in the middle of the day), Noah and his family went into the Ark...as Gd had commanded (Genesis 7:13). Rashi explains that Noah entered the Ark in full view of the people of his generation. Perhaps, they might try to stop him or stone him or slow him down, but the flood was inevitable and so was Noah’s entrance into the Ark. Nothing, no force on earth could stop that which Gd had decreed. Some things cannot be stopped.
B’etzem hayom hazeh (in the middle of the day) Gd brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt. There would be Egyptians who, even after experiencing the wrath of the 10 plagues, would not allow Israel to leave. “But,” says Gd, “I will take you out, and your leaving of that land is inevitable. No force in this world will stop you.” Some things just can’t be stopped.
Rashi says: And now Gd has decreed that Moses will die. He will die, b’etzem hayom hazeh (in the middle of the day). Israel will try to avert the decree. They will pray on Moses’ behalf—the man who brought us out from Egypt, the man who split the sea for us and caused the manna to descend...and gave us the Torah, “We will not permit him to leave us.” They will cry and they will try to hold him back, but his death is inevitable. It will happen just as Gd has willed it to happen, evenb’etzem hayom hazeh (in the middle of the day). No force on this earth can affect the outcome. Not even Moses’ death can be stopped.
All of Israel saw Moses ascend the mountain that fateful day. They were summoned by Gd to his deathbed like a son or a daughter being summoned to the deathbed of a parent. They had to do something that only a child could do. And yet, the Torah doesn’t record a single word said. Maybe their hands were extended out to him—their eyes meeting his—but there was silence. If not to say something, what is it then that they were summoned to do, b’etzem hayom hazeh, there in the middle of the day?
I think I know what happened, and I think I know what they learned that day. They learned the same thing that Joy Gresham taught C.S. Lewis, as portrayed by Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins in the classic film “Shadowlands.”
C.S. Lewis was a Catholic theologian, a dean at Oxford University in England. He was a stodgy, typically English bachelor who spent his time reading, teaching and writing theology. He lived with his brother and together, they had a secure, regulated sort of life, that is, until he met Joy Gresham. She was a vivacious, intelligent woman, who broke through C.S. Lewis’ routine existence and brought love into his life. Never before had he been so open with someone and never before had he felt so involved in someone else’s life.
They loved each other deeply and planned to be married, when Joy discovered that she was terminally ill with cancer. They married nevertheless. There was a remission in Joy’s illness, but it was temporary. She knew she was dying and nothing could stop it. Only their love for each other sustained her, and gave her the strength and courage to keep fighting.
Toward the end of the film, ravaged by the disease, Joy turns to C.S. Lewis and says: “You have to let me go. You have to give me permission to die. I can’t leave you. I don’t want to leave you unless you tell me that it’s okay for me to go.”
It was the hardest moment in his life, but in his love for her, he found the courage to say the one thing that a person can say to someone who is dying—something like what I said to my father. He said: “I love you. If you can’t hold on, if you’re too tired, if you’re too hurt, in too much pain, you can let go. I’ll be all right. My life will be immeasurably diminished without you, but I will go on until it is my time to join you.”
The people of Israel were summoned to watch Moses ascend the mountain from which there would be no return. They were summoned to watch Gd give Moses permission to die. Gd had always loved Moses with a special love. He had seen Gd face to face and knew more about Him than any other living being. Now, it was Moses’ time and the Midrash says: Keyvan sheh-hishlim Moshe nafsho l’mita (When Moses accepted his own death) and knew that it could not be stopped…when he knew that he had reached the limit of his life in the middle of that day and he was ready to let go, Gd cried out and said, Mi yakum li im m’reyim, “Who will take My part against evil men? Who will stand up for Israel when I’m angry?...And who shall ask for My mercy, when Israel has sinned before Me?”
This is so sweet. Even Gd didn’t want to let Moses go. He had decreed that Moses would die. But paradoxically, He did not want to let him go. Moses had lived 120 years. His work was complete. It was time to join his brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam. And so the Midrash tells us: “At that moment, Gd kissed Moses—and as such, gave him permission to let go—and took his soul with a kiss and Moses was gathered unto his people.”
There are 3 things that we should learn from the experience of the death of Moses before his people. When summoned to a deathbed, you must go. And so the Jews showed up to say farewell to their beloved leader. They learned as well that about the only thing you can do at the outer limits of life, is to extend a hand, offer a kiss and say something—anything that gives permission to your beloved to let go. And, finally, they learned that when Moses died, he did not die alone. Gd was with him.
What was true for Moses is true for us. We are never alone; Gd is always by our side. He was with the ones we come here to remember on this Yizkor day when they passed on, as He was with us at the same time in our grief, during our hour of need. He will be with us when it’s our time to pass on, as He is with us now, within us and beside us.
As it says at the end of the Adon Olam prayer: B’yado afkid ruchi, b’eyt ishan v’a-ira (Into His hand I shall entrust my soul, when I go to sleep—I shall surely awake!) V’im ruchi g’viyati, Hashem li v’lo ira (As long as my soul is with my body, [how much more so when it leaves the body,] Hashem is with me I shall not fear). Amen!