L’Chaim: To Life – and Death

“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life,” said Steve Jobs during his 2005 Stanford Commencement address.  This phrase aptly describes one of the themes underlying the most joyous Biblical festival, Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).

Before beginning the Passover seder meal, which falls half a year distant from Sukkot, we extend an invitation to those who are hungry to join us.  However, before the Sukkot meal,  we invite seven dead people to join us; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.  Sounds a little like Halloween dinner at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion doesn’t it?

Yes, Sukkot, which is set by an exquisitely precise lunar calendar, always occurs close to Halloween.  That time of the year as the leaves die and the days get colder and shorter, can feel quite lifeless.  Hence Halloween’s frivolous mocking of death.  Sukkot’s association with death couldn’t be more different.

Actually, Sukkot has an additional name. It is called the Festival of the Gathering because of this verse:

Observe the Festival of Sukot for seven days
after you have gathered in your grain and your wine

(Deuteronomy 16:13)

you have gathered

However, in Hebrew, that word ‘gather’ ASaF, also means dying, as we see in these examples:

Isaac expired, and died, and was gathered to his people…
(Genesis 35:29)

When Jacob finished commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered unto his people.
(Genesis 49:33)

Die on the mountain where you go up, and be gathered to your people; as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor, and was gathered to his people.
(Deuteronomy 32:50)

and he was gathered

As if to emphasize the connection between joyous life and death, Sukkot contains a celebration of life-giving water but is also the holyday on which we read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) with its reminder that:

 …and the day of death (is better) than the day of one’s birth.
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than a house of feasting…”

Ecclesiastes 7:1-2

As Thought Tool enthusiasts already know, when any Hebrew word seems to mean two separate things or ideas, they are really closely related.  Thus the Festival of the Gathering also means the festival of death.  But why would the most joyful Biblical holyday carry even a hint of death?

For a clue, we need to examine an incident late in the life of Moses.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, avenge the people of Israel from the Midianites; afterwards shall you be gathered to your people.   And Moses spoke to the people, saying, arm yourselves for war and go against the Midianites to do the God’s vengeance in Midian.
(Numbers 31:1-3)

A lesser man hearing that this would be his final mission, might have dawdled in launching the war against the Midianites.  He might have rationalized the delay as necessary for adequate military preparation.  But ancient Jewish wisdom observes that though Moses clearly knew that after this mission he’d die, he nonetheless wasted no time in carrying it out.

This final opportunity for Moses to obey God carried a special quality that it wouldn’t have possessed if there’d be countless future such opportunities.  If great wine cost a dollar a bottle, it would soon lose its taste.  The value of any limitless commodity is zero.  Without death, there can ultimately be no joy.  A life lived forever is not a good deal and whether this is exactly what Steve Jobs meant in June 2005, we’ll never know. But the words he uttered are true.  This is why Sukkot, the greatest holyday of joy, must contain within it some small reminders of death.


6 thoughts on “L’Chaim: To Life – and Death”

  1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    We wrote and posted this before the Las Vegas massacre which I plan to address in the upcoming podcast once we’ve all had more time to digest and assimilate the shock.

  2. The timing of your Thought Tool, dear Rabbi, is again uncanny. This past weekend we invested in a long journey to the memorial service of a very dear aunt who was gathered home. She embodied your best sense of the word, that she lived a rich, full life well lived in service to her large family and to many others, who showed up by the score to honor her memory. Therefore we will long remember this lesson on gathering.

  3. For Christians -“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21

    Perhaps the same lesson?

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thanks for writing, Karen,
      I can’t comment since I don’t really know that verse or its context.

  4. Here one is reminded of Rachel naming her firstborn (Gen 30:22-24): “And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb. And she conceived, and bare a son; and said, God hath taken away [אָסַף] my reproach: And she called his name Joseph; and said, The LORD shall add [יֹסֵף] to me another son.” Was she not gathered as her soul was departing [בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ] when that other son was added (Gen 35:18)? Or does she yet weep for her children because they are not? Maybe no connection to חַג הָאָסִיף, yet I’ll bet you would have something interesting to say here.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Interesting, to be sure, Noel,
      I’ll take a careful look and see what I might find.

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