Why I Defy Death through Speech

“I shall not die, but I shall live and relate the deeds of God!” (Psalm 118:17)


Dear Friends,


I discovered my Jewish spiritual roots in my youth, and I am part of the generation that sang the following verse from a song by Joni Mitchell about the spiritual seekers that attended the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969:


“We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the Garden.”


The Garden of Eden is mentioned in the Torah, and I therefore discuss with spiritual seekers various Torah teachings regarding the Garden. The following is a brief summary of one of the themes which I often discuss: Adam and Eve had the potential to live forever when they were still in the Garden of Eden, and had they continued to fulfill the Divine mandate “to serve and protect” the Garden (Genesis 2:15), death would not have come into the world. When, however, they stopped viewing the world as a place for serving and instead began to view the world as a place for selfish gratification, they felt free to eat from the “forbidden fruit”; thus, death entered the world (Genesis 2:17). In the era of our complete renewal and redemption, Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, will eliminate death, as it is written:


“He will eliminate death forever; and the Master of All, Hashem God, will erase tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).


The era of the death of death has not yet arrived. In the meanwhile, human societies have developed various rituals and customs which honor and commemorate the departed. For example, some societies have the custom to have a period of silence in honor of the departed. Our spiritual tradition does not have this particular custom; nevertheless, after the State of Israel was established, its secular leaders decided to institute this custom on the State’s official days of mourning for the departed.


The wise King Solomon wrote:


“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven…a time to be silent, and a time to speak.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7)


A study of our spiritual tradition reveals that there are occasions when silence is sacred and meaningful. For example, King David, the sweet singer of Israel, proclaimed to Hashem: “To You, silence is praise” (Psalm 65:2 – translation of Rashi).This awareness leads to the following question: Why does our tradition not have a custom of honoring the departed through an official period of silence?


Death itself is the great silencer. This awareness is expressed in the following verse, where, as some commentators point out, “silence” is used as a metaphor for death:


“It is not the dead that praise God, and not all those who go down into silence. (Psalm 115:17)


Instead of reinforcing the silence of death through more silence, we honor the departed through holy human speech – an expression of life! The following verse can help us to understand this idea:


“And Hashem God formed the human being of dust from the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and the human became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)


Targum Onkelos is the ancient and revered Aramaic translation of the Torah, and regarding the soul of life which caused the human being to become a living being, Targum Onkelos states:


“It became within the human being a speaking spirit.”


It is through the soul of life within us – the “speaking spirit” – that we honor the departed. One of the ways in which we honor the departed is through saying the Kaddish prayer which opens with these words:


 May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world which He created as He willed.


“His great Name” refers to the most sacred Divine Name that we respectfully refer to as “Hashem” – the Name. According to the Vilna Gaon, the most sacred Divine Name expresses the following idea: “He gives existence to all.” (Cited in “Shaarei Aharon,” in the commentary on Genesis 2:4)


As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, the meaning and grammatical form of this Divine Name denotes not only the One Who grants existence, but the One Who is always ready to grant new life (commentary to Genesis 2:4).


There is no mention of the dead in the Kaddish, and its major theme is the sanctification of the Name of the Life-Giving One in “this” world. Why, then, do we chant the Kaddish in memory of the departed?


The neshamah – soul – is sent down into this world in order to sanctify the Name of the Life-Giving One through her own life-giving words and deeds. When a neshamah leaves this world, there is a void, for this neshamah is no longer able to sanctify the Divine Name in this world. We therefore recognize our responsibility to fill this void, and we proclaim: May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world which He created as He willed.


We say the above words in memory of the souls of the departed; thus, these souls become a cause of our increasing Kiddush Hashem – the Sanctification of the Divine Name – in this world. Our Kaddish therefore brings merit to their souls.


Another way of bringing merit to their souls is by saying words of Torah in their memory, as the words of Torah increase life. In this spirit, the wise King Solomon wrote concerning the words of Torah: “For they are life to the one who finds them” (Proverbs 4:22); moreover, King Solomon also described the Torah as “a tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18).


Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel – is especially suitable for the life-giving Torah, as before we entered the Land, Moshe, our great teacher, proclaimed to us:  “See! I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land” (Deuteronomy 4:5). We are to fulfill the life-giving Torah in all the regions of this sacred land, and this may be one of the reasons why King David proclaimed:


“I shall walk before Hashem in the lands of the living.” (Psalm 116:9)


“The lands of the living” – Eretz Yisrael. (Commentaries of Rashi and Radak)


All of our activities within “the lands of the living” should be in the spirit of the life-giving Torah, including the way in which we honor the departed. It is with this awareness that I relate to the official days of mourning in the State of Israel, including the day which the government calls, Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah – the Day for Remembering the Holocaust and the Heroism.


I live in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and when the siren goes off on Yom HaShoah – the government’s signal to be still and silent for two minutes – I am usually at home. When I hear the siren, I feel a bond of love with all our brothers and sisters who are using this occasion to honor in their way the precious souls that were taken from us during the Holocaust, but I am not still and silent. Instead, I chant words of Torah in memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, and I also pray for the great comfort and redemption of our people. If, however, I would be in a public area where there are other Jews who are following this secular custom when the siren is heard, I would also observe this custom, in order not to hurt the feelings of others who do not yet understand why this is not a Jewish custom. This is also why most of the Torah-committed Jews who do not observe this custom when at home or in their own religious communities will observe this custom when they are in a public area with Jews who do not share their understanding.


Many of those who do not observe the custom of a period of silence on Yom HaShoah when they are at home or in their own religious communities are Holocaust survivors, the children of Holocaust survivors, or the relatives of those who perished in the Holocaust. Their response to the Holocaust is to renew Jewish life – physically and spiritually. They therefore strive to bring more Jewish children into the world; moreover, they have renewed some of the Torah centers and communities that were destroyed in Europe. They also organize or support outreach programs which are designed to strengthen the Jewish identity and commitment of unaffiliated Jews with little or no Jewish education. In terms of my own life, the awareness of the Holocaust was a major factor in my decision to devote my life to Jewish outreach and education, for as sociologists point out, assimilation is a major threat to the survival of our people.


Through the full renewal of our people, we will “walk before Hashem in the lands of the living.” And through this full renewal, we will experience the ultimate redemption when, “He will eliminate death forever; and the Master of All, Hashem God, will erase tears from all faces.”



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. Although we do not have a custom of “honoring” the departed through a period of silence, there are occasions when silence may be helpful during the mourning process. For example, there is a mitzvah to visit and comfort the mourner during the seven-day mourning period; however, we are to also be aware that there are periods when the mourner may wish to be silent. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discussed the laws and customs of mourning in “Horeb” – his noted work on the Torah’s mitzvos, and regarding the mitzvah to offer words of comfort, he writes in Chapter 43:


“Do not offer any word of comfort until you see that the mourner desires it –otherwise show him your sympathy by your silence, for your very presence evidences sympathy (Yorah Deah, 376).”


The source in Yorah Deah which Rabbi Hirsch referred to mentions that someone who goes to comfort the mourner should be silent until the mourner initiates the conversation.


2. There is a special Kaddish chanted at the burial of the body of the deceased, and this Kaddish opens with the following words:


May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world which will be renewed, and where He will resurrect the dead and raise them up to eternal life.


This Kaddish is also chanted when a tractate of the Talmud is completed – a reminder that the study and fulfillment of Torah leads to eternal life.

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