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Parshas Toldos (5771)

Life and Death Lessons

Reading in this week’s Torah portion about the birth of those famous biblical twins, Jacob and Esau, as well as about the impending demise of their father Isaac, got me thinking about the beginning and end of the human lifecycle – and how they are connected to each other.

Much has been written about birth and death and the connection between them over the centuries and millennia. Here is a sampling of quotes from some really wise people about these two important – and inevitable – milestones in every person’s life:

~ "When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice." - Cherokee Expression

~ “We are ever dying to one world and being born into another.” - Henry David Thoreau

~ “Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth – look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment.” - Soren Kierkegaard

~ “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” - Stephen King

~ “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.” - George Santayana

~ “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.” - Mark Twain

~ “There are but three events in a man's life: birth, life, and death. He is not conscious of being born, he dies in pain, and he forgets to live.” – Jean De La Bruyere

~ “I am not afraid of death. I just don't want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen

As you can imagine, the Torah also has what to say about the birth and death lifecycle – but, as with many other areas in life, its eternal wisdom runs counter to what most people might think.

In Ecclesiastes 7:1, King Solomon, the wisest of all men, wrote: “A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death [is better] than the day of one's birth."

Some commentators explain the first half of the verse homiletically: When good oil spills on the ground and needs to be cleaned up before someone trips on it, one can easily take some dirt and spread it over the oil to remove its potential impact. However, when a person lives life as he should, and develops a “good name” and a wonderful reputation and is beloved by all, no amount of dirt thrown on his coffin at the burial can squelch the impact his life and good name had - and will continue to have for a long time – on everyone around him.

The second half of the verse – which talks to the connection between birth and death - is explained by the Midrash:

“… and the day of death [is better] than the day of one's birth." When a person is born, everyone rejoices; when he dies, everyone cries. But that’s not the way it should be. When a person is born, everyone should be crying, because it is not yet known whether or not he will follow a proper path in life. When he dies, everyone should be rejoicing, since they know that he left this world in peace after living a good and proper life. To what can this be compared? To two ships that were in the ocean laden with merchandise. One ship was coming to port, the other was leaving. People were praising the ship coming into port. Others stood by amazed and said, "Why are you praising this ship and not the other?" In reply they said to them, "We are praising the incoming ship since we know this ship has departed in peace and arrived at its destination in peace. But what the future will bring to the ship that has just begun its journey we do not know. "So it is with a person who is born: we do not know the nature of his future deeds. But when he leaves this world we know the nature of his deeds.” (Yalkut Shimoni Ecclesiastes 7:1.)

So we see that, in the Torah view, the real cause for joy and celebration is at the end of one’s life, when he has made it through life doing good deeds and changing the lives of those around him for the better, and is being buried with a “good name” and a legacy that can never be taken away from him. When the child is born, however, his very future and the path he will take in life is not yet known – and this should be cause for concern and worry for those around him.

And even though we might rejoice at a birth and cry at a funeral, this doesn’t necessarily negate the Torah’s wisdom about the proper attitude towards the beginning and end of life. For as Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky points out in his classic mid-twentieth-century work on death and mourning, Gesher HaChaim (“The Bridge of Life”), the rejoicing that is done when a baby is born is not primarily for the baby himself – after all, nobody asked him whether he even wanted to come into this crazy new world - but rather for those around him who are happy to have gained a new addition to their family. As well, the crying at a person’s death is not so much for the deceased as it is for those around him who are bereft of their close relative and who miss him dearly.

I believe this “life and death” lesson from the Torah is extremely relevant to our times. You see, we live today in a “youth culture” where youth and those who are young are worshipped and idolized by the vast majority of people on the planet. Even as people are living longer and there are more elderly people around, the “older generation” is not looked up to and venerated as it once was.

The Torah here is teaching us that - contrary to popular wisdom - it is the older generation and not the youth that is to be admired and respected. After all, they have already proved themselves by living a full and productive life, whereas with the young people there is still a huge question mark as to what they will make of their lives. And I think the world would be a far better place today if only we heeded the Torah’s lesson and replaced our young and unproven “role models” with those elderly people who actually lived life - and lived it well by making consistent good choices - and who are true role models for all of us. (Boy, I am beginning to sound a lot like my mother, no?)

[There is yet another amazing and original connection between birth and death that is illustrated by the Gesher HaChaim – and which has even been made into a beautiful song titled “Conversation in the Womb” in the Journeys album written and composed by Abie Rotenberg – which you can read online at: I highly recommend it!]

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