Class 39 - A Jewish Approach to Death
As a supplement to our recent discussion on the Jewish approach towards
suffering, we include an article written by Mrs. Leah Kohn several years ago,
upon the death of Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner z'tl. In the article, Mrs. Kohn
explores her own process of coming to terms with the loss of someone who
touched not only her own life, but the lives of many. She also looks at the
source of Rabbi Kirzner's personal strength.
A Jewish Approach to Death
By Mrs Leah Kohn
For four years it was my privilege to work with Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner, my
coordinator at the Jewish Renaissance Center in Manhattan. He was brilliant
and kind and funny - all the things that make us cherish a person. He was a
mentor to literally thousands - students, coworkers and many others with whom
he came into contact. The death of someone close - especially if that person
is very young - is bewildering. How are we to understand such an event? How
are we to cope with our anguish for the young family Rabbi Kirzner left
behind? How are we to deal with our pain?
I won't attempt to deal here with the issue of why good people suffer,a
classic topic that deserves its own dedicated study. Rather, I would like to
discuss the Jewish approach to death - the way our tradition teaches us to
view and cope with personal tragedies of this proportion.
Several years ago, I learned that Rabbi Kirzner had a melanoma - cancer of
the most deadly variety. Virtually no one else knew. My husband and I had
to know, because we were working with Rabbi Kirzner and he would be away for
treatments and unable to teach for weeks at a time. Rabbi Kirzner asked us
not to discuss his condition with anyone.
The news of his illness shocked me. I came home that day dumbfounded. I
said to my husband, "How? How could God want to take away a person so
important to so many? I'm not even asking how God could allow such a
wonderful person to suffer, but from my own selfish viewpoint, how could such
a person be taken away?"
A person can spend a lifetime studying the wisdom in just one book of Jewish
knowledge. Yet, in this world at least, there are areas beyond our vision,
concepts and events we can't figure out. Sometimes it's our very inability
that makes us realize God's greatness. Certainly, Rabbi Kirzner privately
struggled to figure out what God was doing to him. I was not privy to those
struggles, but one thing was evident: rather than weakening him they gave
him awesome strength and, at the same time, a tremendous trust in God.
A year later, Rabbi Kirzner was scheduled to deliver an evening lecture.
That day he had received biopsy results which were not good. The topic of
Rabbi Kirzner's lecture that night was prayer. He spoke about prayers that
are answered and prayers that are not answered. His delivery was so cogent,
so smooth, that no one in the audience would have guessed his terrible
secret. He said that in truly hard times when we try everything humanly
possible to help ourselves, yet still feel events are beyond our control, we
must not just pray to God, but throw ourselves on Him. We should tell God,
"I'm yours. I know you love me, and I can trust you implicitly. You are
doing whatever is best for me, and I'm throwing myself on You."
Rabbi Kirzner's strength was apparent in his calm that evening, as well as on
a day to day basis. For three years he underwent agonizing chemotherapy, yet
none of his students or colleagues suspected he was ill. Although he missed
teaching for weeks at a time, he always returned to class with the same
delicious wit, the same calm disposition, the same hopefulness in what life
has to offer.
On the Friday morning he died, I myself was shocked by the news, even though
I knew all along that only a miracle would save him. Towards the end, it
should have been plain to me what was coming. Yet his dedication to life and
his refusal to succumb to depression had swept me along.
I struggled through my own feelings of injustice when I heard the news.
Rabbi Kirzner had helped so many. How could this be fair? The answer is,
it's not fair - if your measuring stick is life in this world only. Reality
for all of us is our everyday lives. Intellectually, we know there is life
after life, but this awareness does not participate in our daily reality. In
truth, life here is only a preparation for life after life.
How is it a preparation? The kind of life we live here creates the afterlife
we will receive after death. We are not passive players - we actively shape
our eternity through thoughts, deeds and our desire to connect with the
eternal. Certainly, for Rabbi Kirzner who created moment to moment goodness,
the afterlife is a place of spiritual pleasure unimaginable to us.
We might wonder whether he could have earned a better eternity if only he'd
had more time here. Not so. Our earnings in the World to Come are based
solely on the degree to which we actualize our potential. Quality rather
than quantity of deeds is the measure. All factors are taken into account,
including how we overcome life's difficulties.
Each Jew is uniquely precious to God. We have different talents and
circumstances, because we each have a different mission in life - a unique
aspect of Godliness to contribute. In many cases, a short lifespan indicates
a mission accomplished.
There's a famous story by the Chazon Ish, a pious man and great Torah
scholar, who lived in Israel about thirty five years ago. Bedridden at the
end of his life, he studied and even taught from his bed. One day, when a
married couple and their child who had Down's syndrome came for a blessing,
the Chazon Ish stood up as they entered. After the family left, his startled
students asked whether he had stood up to honor the parents for their
exhausting efforts with the child. The Chazon Ish said no - he had stood to
honor the child.
The Chazon Ish's reply was an eye-opener. Jewish tradition teaches us that
almost all of us alive today have been here before in a different
incarnation. We return to this world in order to complete our missions.
Each time we return, we're given what we need - intellect, communal support,
health, money - to finish our task. If a person such as a disabled child is
born with limited resources, it means he has little to accomplish. In his
previous life, he all but accomplished what his soul had set out to do in the
first place. "That is why I stood," said the Chazon Ish.
So from the point of view of the person who has finished his mission, death
is neither negative or a punishment. Our sages describe death as, "a night
between two days," a passage from one stage of life to another, from finite
But what about those of us left here? How do we deal with our grief? It's
not easy, but our task is to trust that God will never leave us alone.
Individuals leave, but God is always here for us, and He blesses us with the
ability to form new attachments in this world. There are no substitutes for
those we have loves and lost, but there are new routes for our love to
follow. While adjusting to loss is difficult, we know that God continues to
provide for our needs.
We must learn from death the meaning and purpose of life. What should we
dedicate ourselves to? The night before Rabbi Kirzner entered the hospital
for the last time, he made an appointment to meet with a stranger who had
heard a few of his lectures on tape and felt that a half hour with the rabbi
would do him good. Rabbi Kirzner did not mention his illness. Where did he
find the will to deal with a stranger's problems at a time when he could have
been justifiable preoccupied? Herein lies the remarkable message of Judaism.
"I am alive! Thank God I have time to accomplish something!" In his final
moments, Rabbi Kirzner continued to live in his matchless way.
God loves us to a degree no human can match or comprehend. In this supreme
love, He often presents us with opportunities for growth that from our
perspective seem painful. We can only struggle to accept the ultimate good
beyond our limited understanding of God's plan.
The Chiddushei HaRim, a renowned nineteenth century chassidic rabbi, lived
through a tremendous personal tragedy. His daughter died just days after
the birth of her ninth child. On hearing of her death the rabbi said, "Only
the Master of Mercy can cause such pain." Master of mercy. This is the
essence of the Jewish approach to suffering. We trust that an act of God's
love is sometimes painful and hard to comprehend. This faith empowers us to
move on in life and to learn profound lessons from life's most difficult
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2000 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and ProjectGenesis, Inc.