What Death Should Teach Us About Life and Living

Death is not a counterpoint or contradiction to life, but a profound teacher about the meaning of human existence.

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There is, furthermore, the mystery of my personal exis­tence. The problem of how and whether I am going to be after I die is profoundly related to the problem of who and how I was before I was born. The mystery of an afterlife is related to the mystery of preexistence. A soul does not grow out of nothing. Does it, then, perish and dissolve in nothing?

Human life is on its way from a great distance; it has gone through ages of experience, of growing, suffering, insight, ac­tion. We are what we are by what we come from. There is a vast continuum preceding individual existence, and it is a legitimate surmise to assume that there is a continuum follow­ing individual existence. Human living is always being under way, and death is not the final destination.

In the language of the Bible to die, to be buried, is said to be "gathered to his people" (Genesis 25:8). They "were gathered to their fathers" (Judges 2:10). "When your days are fulfilled to go to be with your fathers" (I Chronicles 17:11).

Do souls become dust? Does spirit turn to ashes? How can souls, capable of creating immortal words, immortal works of thought and art, be completely dissolved, vanish forever?

Others may counter: The belief that man may have a share in eternal life is not only beyond proof; it is even presumptu­ous. Who could seriously maintain that members of the human species, a class of mammals, will attain eternity? What image of humanity is presupposed by the belief in immortality? Indeed, man's hope for eternal life presupposes that there is something about man that is worthy of eternity, that has some affinity to what is divine, that is made in the likeness of the divine…

[T]he likeness of God means the likeness of Him who is unlike man. The likeness of God means the likeness of Him compared with whom all else is like nothing.

Indeed, the words "image and likeness of God" [in the biblical creation story] conceal more than they reveal. They signify something which we can neither comprehend nor verify. For what is our image? What is our likeness? Is there anything about man that may be com­pared with God? Our eyes do not see it; our minds cannot grasp it. Taken literally, these words are absurd, if not blas­phemous. And still they hold the most important truth about the meaning of man.

Obscure as the meaning of these terms is, they undoubtedly denote something unearthly, something that belongs to the sphere of God. Demut [likeness]and tzelem [image]are of a higher sort of being than the things created in the six days. This, it seems, is what the verse intends to convey: Man partakes of an unearthly di­vine sort of being.

Our Smallness: Death Teaches Humility

Death is the radical refutation of man's power and a stark reminder of the necessity to relate to a meaning which lies beyond the dimension of human time. Humanity without death would be arrogance without end. Nobility has its root in hu­manity, and humanity derived much of its power from the thought of death.

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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Ph.D. (1907-1972), born in Warsaw and educated in Poland and Germany, was Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Among his books are Man Is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, The Earth is the Lord's, and Israel: Echo of Eternity.