Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford¹ a major figure in the development of Jehovah’s Witnesses, preached the motto they quickly adopted: “Millions now living will never die.” One observer remarked, “Yes, but the tragedy is that millions now living are already dead but do not know it.”
In line with this observer, rabbinic teachers have been pointing in the same direction. Even when the Torah reported the death of two of Moses’ nephews, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, rabbinic commentators have been explaining: Well, actually, their souls were consumed; their bodies remained intact.” And since then our tradition has kept a lens on this phenomenon.
Legal analysts might argue the questions of when biological death sets in. When the heart stops beating? When the brain stops functioning? But what, the Rabbis ask, is the status of the human being when the soul shrivels and the spirit withers?
Today more people than ever are entertaining a belief in (or at least curiosity about) life after death. My feeling is that we should give more attention to the question “How about life during life?” Are we truly and fully alive, not only biologically, but spiritually as well?
Author Sinclair Lewis² was a professed atheist. Once he engaged in a public debate in Kansas City on whether or not G!d exists. He finished his presentation with the dramatic challenge: “If there is a G!d, let him strike me dead now.” He waited a few moments, nothing happened, and he marched triumphantly off the platform.
The following morning the Kansas City Times printed an editorial response to Lewis. Of course, it stated, G!d did strike Lewis dead even though he did not seem to be aware of it. His spiritual demise was reflected in his despair about the value of life, in his cynical contempt for people, in his sneering egotism, and in his waning literary powers. It was another case of a human being who was biologically sound, spiritually dead.
A colleague once blessed his young grandson with the following words, drawing from Jonathan Swift:³ “My child, may you live all the days of your life.” To live all the days of our lives is to live fully, with our whole being, with heart and mind and spirit. It means cultivating all of our G!d-given resources for inner growth. It means being alive to the beauty of the world and to the wonder and the miracle of being part of it. It means becoming ever more sensitive to the abiding joys of sharing, the extravagant rewards of loving, the bountiful harvests of hoping. This year–this long, difficult year–we were granted life, and we
will now usher in a new year of life.
May we be privileged and blessed to be here one year from now to usher in another New Year together.
But may this year not be a year where our hearts beat well, but our spirits shrivel.
May this year not be one where our bodies remain intact, but our souls get consumed.
Rather, may this be a year that we live all the days of the life we are granted, a year we live fully, with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might.
And if we can do this, we can rest assured that 5782 will indeed be a shanah tovah,
a year of life,
a year of goodness,
a year of compassion,
a year of awareness,
a year of connection,
a year of sensitivity,
a year of hope.
Kein y’hi ratzon.
So may it be.