Sunday, November 17, 2019

Chaye Sarah: (Against) The Denial of Death

While the name of this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah means “the life of Sarah,” the reading actually commences with Sarah’s death.  Through this ironic juxtaposition of the title and the ensuing subject matter, Torah invites us to reflect on the relationship between life and death, and the importance of coming to terms with our mortality.  The fate of our planet may depend upon it.

Ernest Becker’s groundbreaking 1973 book, The Denial of Death argues that human culture and technology are largely designed to distract us from our knowledge—and fear—of our mortality. 
Alas, because we will all, nonetheless, die, the relief is temporary and the consequences of this escapism and denial can be catastrophic, especially for the environment.  As the Ernst Becker Foundation notes on its website:

Nature is riddled with reminders of our corporeality, so maintaining order and control over nature creates the illusion that we can avoid death. We extend power over nature through heroic feats of science, technology, and economic growth. We cut our grass and fill our shopping carts to set ourselves apart from nature, which allows us to feel as though death is escapable. As Becker warned, immortality driven consumer desire, unfettered materialism, and exploitation of nature carry a dark underbelly: environmental destruction.

A sustainable life begins with the acknowledgment that we, like everything in nature, will ultimately die—that death is an essential part of life. Portion Chaye Sarah s embodies this truth.  It begins with Sarah’s death and ends with the deaths of Abraham and Ishmael—but in between it focuses on marriages and childbirth.  Abraham responds to Sarah’s demise with grief but also clear-eyed acceptance of his own morality; it leads him not into denial but rather turns his attention to the next generation. 

If we want to keep our planet alive, we must learn to accept that fact that we will die.  The “transhumanist” movement that seeks to extend human lifespans to 150 or more is deeply misguided; such a world is not sustainable.  Besides, as writer Susan Ertz observed back in 1943, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”  We are all of the dust, and to the dust we shall all return.

But that dust is also the source of new life.  Margaret Renkl expresses this truth beautifully in her recent New York Times essay, “Ode to a Dark Season”:
Fallen leaves soften the path I walk on, but not for my sake. The leaves fall to feed the trees, to shelter the tiny creatures who are essential to this forest in a way that I will never be. The misty rain unstiffens the wood of dead trees, making places for nesting woodpeckers to excavate next spring, making a home for the insects that will feed the woodpeckers and so many other living things. I often stop to study the woody shelf fungi growing on the deadwood. I count their rings, like the rings of a felled tree, and know how long they have been growing, how long the death of the tree has been feeding the living creatures of this forest.
November reminds us that the membrane between life and death is permeable, an endless back and forth that makes something of everything, no matter how small, no matter how temporary. To be temporary is only one part of life. There will always be a resurrection.
Indeed.  Ecclesiastes taught: “Generations come and go, but the earth abides forever.”  There is powerful truth in this—but only if we recognize and take it to heart.  For the earth to abide—and thrive—we must accept that we will die.

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