12/16/2010 02:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Burn the Day: A Jewish Perspective of Death

I had the unusual experience of being asked to officiate at two funerals. While never exactly enjoyable, I find that they are reflection opportunities bar none. Nothing is quite as sobering as witnessing that final brief journey from surface to deep six. One of the relatives, a kind man in his 70s, looked me in the eye just after and noted, "Rabbi, that's going to be me someday. How am I supposed to process that?" My first thought was, "Man, is it late in the game to start mulling this one over." And my second was, "But good! Better late than never."

On my way home I slid open my iPod and hit shuffle. There is a particular tune that always seems to pop up when I'm in a contemplative mood. It's by Dave Matthews and it's called "Pig." This verse caught me:

What if a great wave should wash us all away?
Just thinking out loud
Don't mean to dwell on this dying thing
But look at my blood
It's alive right now

I don't know all that much about Dave Matthews, and I don't want to make him out to be some great philosopher, but I think he really hits something deep in this song. Counter-intuitively, I end up feeling strangely alive and happy after confronting the ultimate conclusion of the human experience and I know now that the two concepts are intrinsically linked.

In the mercilessly brilliant book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon informs us that it is better to go to a house of mourning than to one of feasting. Why? Because the party, while briefly fun, generally only serves to mask our ongoing battle with reality -- to accept and appreciate reality for what it is and not for what we would prefer it to be. Being forced to look death in the face is like acquiring a mental scalpel that invariably causes us to slash away all of the dermal pettiness and superfluities of our day to day lives. With those gone, we start to deeply appreciate life. I think this is what Dave means when he sings "don't burn the day." Don't waste your precious time fixated on that which is unimportant and saps all of our energy and joy.

The time is short but that's all right
Maybe I'll go in the middle of the night
Take your hands from your eyes, my love
All good things must come to an end some time
But don't burn the day away
Don't burn the day away...

One of my rabbis would always drill into us "the battle for life is the battle for sanity" -- that theories are all fine and good but until we are able to live them, to put into practice what we profess to hold dear, we are not truly alive. It's this tendency to forget, to loose inspiration, that makes integration of expanded consciousness so bedeviling. Sometimes we can go for weeks or months riding a wave of growth and internal achievement only to slam headlong into a wall of humiliating failure. I had such an experience last week where I not only burned the day, I charred it. And it left me feeling physically ill. The trick when we hit those turbulent patches is to strive to remember, and Jewish thought is extremely focused on remembrance.

The Talmud tells us that when we feel our "evil urge" overpowering us we should say the "Sh'ma", a profound meditation on the Unity of the Creator, thereby helping us to stay focused on what is right and good. If that fails we are encouraged to remember the day of death. There we are again, with that splash of cold water meant to jolt us out of our ethical apnea. It would be understandable to view this all as rather morbid but it's not, it's actually quite life affirming. The thing is that it's unfortunately just not possible to live life to the fullest until we have fully embraced the totality of what it is, for better or worse. The whole while that we're pretending that we belong to a special club of people who do not age, do not suffer and do not die, we are in for a long series of rude awakenings. There's a scene in the Dead Poet's Society where the Robin Williams character takes his students out to look at the pictures of the long departed pupils of yesteryear. He notes that they "kind of look just like you boys," to which one of them comments, "Creepy!" It got their attention.

The point of the Jewish burial and seven-day mourning period is specifically to focus the mourners on the loss so that they can experience it deeply, process and then move on. It's actually forbidden to mourn any more than one full year. At that point it must end and the beauty and joy inherent in all of creation must once again become dominant.

Judaism considers sadness to be a bad character trait. We allow for broken heartedness, but never despair or depression as that would be tantamount to a denial of reality, the reality that the universe and everything in it is good. Here's the algorithm: G-d is infinite + G-d is good = everything is infinitely good. Even death, as the Midrash teaches. Four of the days of creation are described as good, except for the last which is called "very good." What is the "very" referring to? Amazingly, to the day of death. To the very end and beyond, it's all about love.

Love, love, love, what more is there?
'Cause we need the light of love in here
Don't beat your head
Dry your eyes
Let the love in there
They're bad times
But that's okay
Just look for love in it