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Dying a Good Death, and Getting 'There' (Parshat Hukkat, Number 19:1-22:1)

06/24/2015 11:11 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

Dedicated to Rami Wernik z"l, cherished Jewish educator

How do you want to die, and what are you doing to get there?

In the world of real estate, the message is: "Location, location, location." Somehow, it also seems an appropriate message when reading so many biblical stories, including (in Parshat Hukkat) that of Miriam's death. The children of Israel, the whole congregation of Israel, arrive in the Zin desert, "and Miriam dies there and is buried there" (Numbers 20:1). The repetition of the word "there" suggests that the Torah may be speaking not only of a physical "there," but also an emotional, mental, intellectual and spiritual "there." The verse hints that the state-of-mind version of "there" may be more about the question of "with whom?" than "where?" as not only "the children of Israel" are mentioned, but specifically "the whole congregation." Miriam was, it would seem, surrounded and accompanied by the entire people.

The question of what characterizes a "good death" is as old as death itself. Early rabbinic sources speak of a person's age at the time of their death, and how long they suffered at the end, as a measure of their righteousness or need for atonement. The Talmud is rich with stories of sages on their death beds and accounts of their parting acts and words.

The first time I really thought about what constitutes a "good death" -- and how important accompaniment is in defining it -- was when I heard my teacher, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, ask this question: "Why did Adam eat from the tree of knowledge?" I remember at first rolling my internal eyes when hearing the question, being sure I would hear an answer that would roll off of me as if it had never touched me. Instead, he said something that has never left me, and has guided much of how I walk in the world. He said: "After Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, she started to die. She told Adam that she was afraid to die alone, and Adam said to her: 'You don't have to die alone, I will die with you!' It is for this reason that he too ate from the tree of knowledge, so that they would die together!"

My eyes tear up and my heart skips a beat every time I think of this answer. I heard a similar story in the name of the Hasidic master Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, that he told a woman on her death bed (who was afraid to die alone) that he was willing to die with her so she would be able to cross over in peace.

Who are the people in your life who, if you were to hear that they were afraid to die alone, you would rush to their side -- even to imagine dying with them? Who are the people in your life who, if you shared that you were afraid to die alone, would rush to your side -- even up to imagining dying with you? And is the fear of dying alone much different than the fear of living alone?

I've always wondered how Adam knew to answer Eve the way he did, where this intuition and wisdom came from. Perhaps he was echoing God, who says, "It is not good for the man to be alone..." (Genesis 2: 18). God doesn't say it is hard to be alone, there is too much work to do alone, or it is boring to be alone, but that being alone is not good. But how would God know what it even means to be "alone" if it weren't that God was sharing, as it were, from the depths of the Divine heart, the Divine experience of aloneness?

We learn from the world of rabbinic midrash that God created a world with which to be in relationship; God's very self knew aloneness, and responded by creating a human companion -- and then, a companion for the first human. Adam tapped into Divine wisdom and experience, and understood the profundity of the related fears of living alone and dying alone -- and the capacity of human beings to assure that people don't live or die alone.

The Zen Roshi, anthropologist, and hospice caregiver Dr. Joan Halifax, in her book Being with Dying, suggests three questions. She asks that we take three minutes -- not less, and definitely not more -- to describe in as much detail as possible what would be the most horrific death we could imagine for ourselves. She asks for feelings, emotions, location, timing, as rich of a description that we are capable of. Then we are asked to do the same regarding what we could imagine to be the best death we could ask for ourselves -- again, in as much detail as possible. She then poses a third question: How are you living to bring yourself to that best death?

I live much of the time between these questions with which my teachers have challenged me --who would I die with, who in my life would die with me, and how I am leading my life to bring me closer to my "best death". I have a vision of sitting with my students, and we are laughing together, and all of a sudden one of them notices that I am no longer laughing.

Returning to Miriam --"And Miriam dies there and is buried there" -- Parker Palmer (an educator and activist who focuses on issues of community and spirituality) offers the following that we might read as another response to the question of what "there" is. In a recent interview, he says: "So, showing up with everything I've got -- my darkness as well as my light -- is, I think, part of ultimately dying a good death. Dying with the ability to say, 'To the best of my ability, I showed up in the world with everything I've got.' "

The sages of the Talmud (in Tractate Moed Katan, 28a) tell us that Miriam died "the kiss of death", the ultimate way of dying in their eyes: It was God that kissed her, and in this kiss inhaled her last breath, and is still holding it. We might say that for Miriam, "there" was about the closest presence of God and human beings. Bringing in Palmer's perspective, we might imagine that her "there" also included the presence of her own full humanity, embracing her darkness as well as her light.

I share these questions for contemplation: What is for each of us a good death, and how will we each get "there"?

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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