Good Death and Bad Death, Tranquility and Trouble

01/06/2017 10:17 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2018

Our forefather Jacob - for whose new name, Israel, our entire people is called - dies in next week's Torah-reading.

Is that a bad thing?

A couple of weeks ago, Jacob feared that it would be. When his favorite son, Joseph, went missing, Jacob wailed to his other sons, "I shall go down mourning after my son into the netherworld" (Genesis 37:35).

Then, as retold in this week's reading, when those same sons propose to Jacob that he send Benjamin, the remaining child of his beloved Rachel, with them into Egypt, to redeem another of their brothers, Shim'on, held captive there by the disguised Joseph, Jacob (still thinking Joseph lost and dead) says about Benjamin: "His brother is dead, and he is left alone; now if mischief befall him in the way in which you go, then shall you bring down my grey hairs in anguish to the netherworld" (Genesis 42:38).

One often hears that the Hebrew Bible does not contemplate much in the way of life after death.

Strictly speaking, it is not that our ancient scriptures imagine a person to be entirely lost and undiscoverable following death. After all, King Saul, with the help of a witch or necromancer-woman in the town of Ein-Dor, manages to summon up the shade of the deceased Samuel. Upon being called up, the spirit of the departed prophet, appearing as the aged man he was when he passed away, rails, "Why have you troubled me to raise me up?" (1Samuel 28:15.)

So there is, according to our scriptures, something like a domain of the dead, a realm where shades of the departed continue to exist in some obscure way - from which, in extraordinary circumstances, they may be summoned up, as in the case of Samuel.

It is just that our scriptures do not dwell much on that place, leaving the impression that there is not much to be said about it. By association with other nouns that appear in the Bible nearby it, She'ol, the netherworld, although it does not quite match later ideas of Hell, nonetheless seems to be a shadowy, gloomy place, more of a realm of perdition or a non-life than any kind of blissful après-vie.

Is that where Jacob-Israel goes when he dies?

That is not quite what our Torah says. When Jacob passes away - having been reunited with Joseph at last, and having had the chance to pass his blessings and his charges on to all of his children - our scriptures say: "When Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he took up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered in to his people" (Genesis 49:33).

That is exactly how the Torah also describes the death of Abraham: "Abraham breathed his last, and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered in to his people" (Genesis 25:8). That is how scripture also describes the death of Abraham's son, Jacob's father: "And Isaac breathed his last, and he died, and was gathered in to his people, old and full of days, and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him" (Genesis 35:29).

Those are not descriptions of sorrow or of trouble, or gloom, but rather of fulfillment and tranquility.

One might argue there is no dichotomy in death. If She'ol is where the dead are, then Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, too, must be "gathered in to their people" there.

Except that She'ol, the shadowy underworld, is only ever mentioned in instances of unfortunate death, of death in circumstances of frustration, anguish, fear, lack of resolution, and absence of peace. In short, She'ol appears in connection with the kinds of death one does not wish to have.

King David, issuing a deathbed hit-list, so to speak, to his son and successor, Solomon, says, regarding his treacherous officer, Joab son of Zeruyah, "Act according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to She'ol in peace." In other words (hint, hint), do not let him die a natural death in old age with all his affairs in order. That is the closest our scriptures come to associating the netherworld and tranquility - and it's not particularly close; in fact it is rather by way of contrast.

"I will gather you unto your fathers, and you shall be gathered into your grave in peace; and your eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place" is the message the prophetess Huldah sends from God to Josiah, the righteous king of Judah (1Kings 22:20).

In This Republic of Sufffering, her book on Death and the American Civil War, Harvard's President, Drew Gilpin Faust, describes vividly how important it was for the families of fallen soldiers to hear that their sons had not expired without having had a chance to make peace with their own departing. "Spiritual preparedness was the essence of dying well," Faust writes - with plentiful evidence of poignant letters from the front and from military hospitals to prove the point.

"Readiness was so important in determining the goodness of a death," Faust observes, "that soldiers often tried to convince themselves and others that what appeared to be sudden had in fact been well prepared."

Unpreparedness, troubled death, is what Jacob seems to fear when he tells his sons they are threatening to bring his aged head sorrowing down into She'ol, or that he will follow his beloved, presumed-dead Joseph into She'ol grieving. And a disquieted end is, too, what David seems to wish upon his enemies, as he orders his last business in preparation for his own death.

To this day, when we pray for the soul of a departed loved one, we wish for that person's rest "in the Garden of Eden," certainly not in She'ol. Rabbinic Judaism discovers promises of eventual resurrection in scripture; but, before that, there is tranqulity and a sense of resolution in death - at least for those who make and find peace and blessing in this life.

I set the Eternal One always before me;
for God is at my right hand, that I not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my flesh also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your devoted one see extinction.
You annunciate to me the path of life:
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand, pleasance forevermore.

(Psalm 16:8-11)

This new calendar year in the wider world begins amid uncertainty and even trouble. May we survive it. And, in spite of the unquiet of these days, may those who must depart this life in these times - and all of us - manage to realize, while we still walk this earth, an enduring state of blessing, fulfillment, and peace.