Sunday, May 21, 2023

Avot 4:17: The Gift of Presence

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: “Do not appease your fellow in the time of their anger or comfort them when their dead lie before them.”  

It can be awkward and confounding to be fully present for our friends, family, and community members during their times of profound upset and loss. Even when we approach with the best of intentions, our responses all too easily fall short.  Too often, knowingly or unwittingly, our words and actions reflect our own anxieties rather than our fellows’ needs.  Out of our discomfort with their rage, we may urge them to “calm down.”  Ill at ease with their grief, we may offer trite reassurance.

Hence the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazaar’s teaching.  He reminds us that when we encounter others suffering, the best thing we can offer is our full, loving, quiet, non-judgmental presence. Instead of trying to “do something” we can simply be there with them in their anger or sorrow.  When words fall short, the act of being open and attentive can speak to the heart.

After time passes, there may be opportunity to share words of understanding and consolation.  But in the throes of anger and the depths of despair, it is wise to guard our tongues. 

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Avot 4:4 Embracing Death--and Life

Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said:Be humble of spirit, for the anticipated end of mortal humans is worms.”  

In his landmark 1973 book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker taught that many of our most profound personal and cultural ills are a result of our inability to come to terms with our mortality.  Instead of recognizing our impermanence, we fill our lives with distractions that offer temporary comfort at the expense of long-term growth.  Becker wrote: “Modern man [sic] is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.”  

Fifty years later, Becker’s premise rings even more true.  The overlords of Silicon Valley are famously obsessed with immortality, and our embrace of their technology renders us complicit in that destructive pipe-dream.  Now, more than ever, our denial of death is, in fact, a deep diminishment of life.  Instead of mustering courage, we surrender to our fear.  

For Ernest Becker, the path toward a meaningful life begins with acknowledging that “to live fully is to live with an awareness of the terror that underlies everything.”  So, too, Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh taught this truth two thousand years ago.  In reminding us of our ultimate end—worms—he affirms the Torah’s core wisdom of ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  A good life embraces our fleeting frailty as the impetus to make the most of the time we’re given.  To be born is to die.  If we run from that reality, we fritter away our days worshiping petty, false gods that tempt us with empty promises.  When we accept and affirm it, however briefly, we shine.

For a gorgeous musical meditation on this theme of mortality, listen to “Change” by Big Thief:

Change like the wind
Like the water, like skin
Change like the sky
Like the leaves, like a butterfly

Would you live forever, never die
While everything around passes?
Would you smile forever, never cry?
While everything you know passes?