Joy in Death

Solomon & Socrates

It would be difficult to overstate the reverence with which Jews who try to be faithful to the Bible’s teachings treat a Torah scroll. It is hand-written in carefully scripted Hebrew, on meticulously stitched together parchment sheets, by an expert known as a ‘sofer’. A Torah scroll is treated with the tender care that a healthy society would give to a human body. Amazingly enough, a little-known Jewish law states that the Torah scroll also may be written in Greek! While Greece and Jerusalem are often cited as representing opposing ideas in ancient Jewish wisdom (an idea that we don’t have space to explore here but do discuss in our audio teaching Festival of Lights) Greece was a worthy and respected adversary.

When the Greek philosopher Socrates stated that, “Death may be the greatest of all human blessings,” we can reasonably assume that he knew well the words that King Solomon spoke in Ecclesiastes 7:1, “A good name is more precious than good oil and the day of death than the day of birth.”

We are now in the midst of the holy days of Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles. On the Shabbat that falls within this week-long festival, we read the book of Ecclesiastes, including the above quote. References to death abound in the book, so it is no surprise that Sukkot is known by another name, one that has what seem to be two contradictory translations. Chag Ha’Asif (Deuteronomy 16:13) may be translated both as ‘The Harvest Festival’ and ‘The Festival of Gathering’.

We easily see that a harvest festival celebrates the gathering of one’s produce before winter sets in. But in the Bible, gathering is also a term for dying as we observe in Genesis 35:29 when Isaac died, “and was gathered to his people…”

During a recent visit with a cherished friend and his wife, our friend shared ancient Jewish wisdom as to what ties together the first half of Ecclesiastes 7:1 with its second part. It is precisely because a good name is so precious that, in a life well-lived, the day of death is more valuable than the day of birth. A newborn is full of exciting potential. Yet, he or she faces years filled with challenges and opportunities to excel or fail. Only when one dies, can we know if a person’s name will be venerated or reviled. Will the sum total of people comprise whatever material possessions they accumulated and the experiences they enjoyed, or will their descendants and those whose lives they affected remember their name with gratitude and esteem? There is even the frightening possibility that they will be remembered with curses. The day of death marks the end of the constant battle to do right: for those who prevail, it is truly a day of rejoicing.

Sukkot is the most joyous Festival of the year and yet it frequently references death. It forces us to recognize that the value of any limitless commodity is zero. As both Solomon and Socrates understood, without death, we would easily fritter away our time and focus on passing pleasure. Without death, there can ultimately be no joy.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this Thought Tools post.
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