There are always reasons to be afraid. The prevalence of danger can be incapacitating. The same inaction that afflicts a frightened individual can befall a people: Then optimism is really fear in disguise, and indolence is the result of feeling paralyzed by the possibilities of failure.
‘I am always sorry to see a typed letter from you.” The sentiment that opens a 1957 letter from historian Hugh Trevor-Roper to his friend, the art critic Bernard Berenson, is a relic of a bygone age. Trevor-Roper explains that typing means Berenson is unwell, and he looks forward to seeing his hand on the page again. By that criterion, our entire generation is unwell.
The first piece of land purchased in Israel is the cave of Machpelah that Abraham buys to bury Sarah. Of course, Abraham too will be buried there, as will Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Leah. So while the first plot of land in Israel is an acknowledgment of the sovereignty of death, it is also a marker of the eternity of love.
The Jewish people brought the idea of one God to the world. Although there have been vastly different ideas about the nature of that God — including the recognition that we cannot, with our limited capacities, truly know God’s nature — one thing has remained consistent. Whatever God is, the existence of God demands certain things from human beings.
As a vegetarian, I have given some thought to the place of animals in Jewish tradition. Differing views on the place of animals in the scheme of life is an old controversy. In the Middle Ages, Saadiah Gaon speculates that there is a reward for animals in the hereafter, but the later sage Maimonides ridicules the idea. Whatever their metaphysical status however, there are Talmudic stories where cruelty to animals is punished, and sparing suffering is consistent with all of Jewish teaching.
Professor Louis Ginzberg was the greatest scholar of rabbinic Midrash in his day, with a vast range of learning in many languages. My father told me that once, at a reception at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Ginzberg taught, a woman approached him and in the course of discussion, began arguing with him about a point in Midrash. After a long, fruitless argument, Ginzberg said, “Why don’t we check the ‘Jewish Encyclopedia’ — would you accept that as an authority?” The woman agreed.
Sending his son Adam some stamps, Saul Bellow wrote in the accompanying note, “Countries sometimes disappear leaving nothing behind but postage stamps.” Anyone who has studied history must indeed be mystified at what endures — the shopping lists of ancient Sumer or obscure graffiti scratched on a prehistoric cave. As in Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” what we think will survive often disappears with barely a trace.
A word for a profoundly Jewish but often disrespected profession: God bless funeral directors.
As a rabbi, I have marveled for many years at the skill and care of funeral directors. My father, a rabbi in Philadelphia, would often recount how his friend, Joseph Levine, would care for those who were bereaved and frightened, and gently guide them. I have seen the same care repeatedly in my own years conducting funerals and meeting with families who had suffered a loss. Death is the most sensitive time; when a funeral director is unkind, the results are devastating. But day after day, a mortuary worker must speak with families whom he or she does not know, and be warm without being cloying, caring without presuming too much, discuss financial arrangements at a time when the family can barely add two and two.