Ki Tavo Now that’s what you call living!
I want to share with you this old story, of a funeral procession.
One of the participants at the funeral takes a look at the funeral procession--- one stretch limousine after another, on and on. Then at the cemetery, a shining gold colored coffin. Flowers by the ton on top, all the family dressed to the nines in high fashion, a marble monument that towers above everyone.
The participant looks at all the wealth and riches spent for this funeral and decides," Dus Heist gelebt."
Now, that's what you call living!
At a Jewish funeral, you may have noticed one thing--one person is not allowed to go to the graveside--a Cohen, a descendant of the High Priest Aaron--may not attend, unless it is for an immediate relative. That's a strange absence. In antiquities, before there were Rabbis, there were Kohanim, Priests. We expect that Rabbi to go to the cemetery—why didn’t our Torah allow the Priest, the equivalent of a Rabbi in his day, to go?
We are given the special regulations regarding the Kohanim- the priests, who, in Biblical times, conducted the sacred rituals of the ancient Temple. The priests had to meet high standards of ritual purity than did the people.
When did people come to the priest?
At the birth of a child, the mother would come to give an offering of purification.
When life was going wrong- the sinner would come to give a sin offering, as a step towards making amends.
When life was going well, the grateful person would offer a korban shlamim, a peace offering.
Who would you turn to then, in ancient times, when life came to an end? Why to the Priest, No?
A few years ago, the burial treasures of King Tut were on display at the LA County Museum on Fairfax. There was a huge billboard on the side of the museum with the image of King Tutankhamen or Tutankhaten on it. It was great for our little granddaughter, who, had just learned about Pesah in nursery school—“That’s Pharaoh”, she exclaimed in delight.
Why do we have a good image of Pharaoh, but nothing remaining of Moses, or Aaron, or the great Kings of Israel? Blame the priest, or blame the Rabbi of his day.
In ancient Egypt, that's when the priest began to work. We have the Egyptian’s Book of the Dead; we've seen displays of their mummies, and photographs of the pyramids. That art of embalming and preserving the image of the ruler—was the job of the priest. And so it was in other ancient religions--the priest was there to guide the dead in the next life.
What about our priest, our Cohen? Where is the priest at that moment, just when you think you need him? Where was the Rabbi of those years? In the Torah, just at that moment, when we would think the priest was indispensable, the priest disappears. La nefesh lo yitamah beamav. He shall not defile himself for the dead among his people. Only for his immediate family- father, mother, and so forth.
So, just when you think you would need a priest the most, he is not there. Even till today, only if there is absolutely no one else able to do it, may a Cohen take care of the burial--only if there is no other person capable of doing it.
Today, we expect the Rabbi to do it, but we have to remember, that in Judaism, the Rabbi is just like anyone else, not sacred, not sanctified, just another Jew who just happens to know what he, or she is doing. No more, no less.
This practice goes hand in hand with another Biblical order:
Throughout the ancient world, when people went to the cemetery, they would leave gifts, often food. Again, in ancient Egypt, in the pyramids, there was always plenty of food. When Pharaoh died, he had food and all his possessions placed in the tomb. In ancient China, when the emperor died, he had all his goods placed in the tomb. Even till today, in many societies there is the same practice, of placing food at the grave, for the deceased.
What does the Torah ask of us? In Deuteronomy, we are told ,” Every third year, we take a tenth of all our produce, and we give it away--we give it to the Levite, who had no land, to the orphan and the widow, who had no provider, and to the immigrant, who had no job or protector--we had to give it away to them, no questions asked, and then declare," I have not eat of it when I was in mourning, nor have I handled it when I was impure from the dead, nor did I give any of it to the dead."
Just what was expected in every other religion of the day, just that was forbidden in the Torah.
Now, without a doubt, we recognize that in here is a message about life itself.
There are a lot of cynics and skeptics in the world, for whom life is miserable, but for each one, there is an optimist and a visionary, both in Jewish and in non-Jewish sources.
The great skeptic, Ecclesiastes, despaired of life, and said," What profit has a man of all his labor under the sun." and added," You’re better off never born alive."
The great skeptic then turned around and also said," Even a live dog is better than a dead lion."
The great Jewish German poet, Heinrich Heine, could complain," Life is a disease, the world is a hospital, and death is the physician."
The same great poet also said." Life is the highest good."
The great Yiddish writer and humorist, Sholom Aleichem, said
" Life is blister on top of a tumor, and a boil on top of that."
That same Sholom Aleichem also created the Beloved Tevye. What is Tevye's beautiful song, in the musical version, Fiddler on the Roof?" To Life, To life, lechayim." If life were a blister, would Tevye truly be singing?
Which of these approaches reflects the heart and soul of Judaism?
Most religious beliefs worry about the next world--what we do there. How we stay there. What happens to us there? How we get there?
Jews, too, have no end of speculations, but Judaism, the Torah, came to teach us about this life, this world.
The priest kept away from the dead, to remind us that we should deal with life.
The sacred offerings were forbidden to the dead, to remind us that we had to meet the need of the living first.
The Torah is amazingly silent about what goes on in the next life. We are not allowed to have a séance with the dead, we cannot try to raise the souls of the dead, and we are not told what happens.
Instead, the Psalms sing out Lo Hametim yehalelu yah, vlo kol yardei duma. The dead don't sing praise to God, or those that go down in silence- Va anachnu nevarech yah -But we will praise the Lord from this time on and forevermore. Hallelujah."
What is it that we sing with so much gusto at the High Holy days?
Zochreniu lechaiym, meleckh hafets bachayim, vkatvenu besefer hachayim,lemaacha, elohim chaim. Remember us for life, O King who delights in Life, and inscribe us in the book of life, O God of Life.” The greatest season the year and we don’t pray to get into heaven- we pray to stay here alive! The concept of a reward in heaven is a big deal for the Rabbis, but they taught us not to pray to get into Heaven, but to stay alive, not to hurry to the next world, but to create a life such that Heaven is here, in our every day actions.
Thus, Judaism is above all a life‑affirming religion. That's why, when we raise a cup of wine, in celebration, we begin with the affirmation, " LeChayim." That is why one of the most popular symbols in Jewish artwork is the word," in Hebrew" "Chai"-Alive, and the favorite gift to a charity is the number 18, to represent the Hebrew letters used to spell Chai, alive. When we give to a charity, we affirm our belief in the goodness and value of life that God created and gave us.
There is a very popular slogan, a good one, which I have heard. " God didn't create junk". When God creates the universe, God discovers, over and again, " Ki Tov"-- Behold it is good.
God didn't make junk, and that includes each and every one of us.
It is all for one purpose-- to tell us" Dus heist gelebt"--this is what you call living. This life, this day that we face, each and every day.
The Torah, Judaism, teaches us how to live. 24 books of the Bible- 63 texts of the Talmud, the numerous books of responsa, midrash, philosphy, and law--all of the come to teach us how to live, to teach us the value and purpose of our lives.
Therefore, we are commanded to watch over our health, and guard our lives, above all other commands, except for idolatry, adultery, and murder. We are forbidden to engage in any dangerous activity, and for the same reason, commanded to seek good health and medicine. We are taught that God presented us our Torah, our teaching, for one purpose, V Chay Bahem, you shall live because of them." We may not kill ourselves for our religion—or kill others with us to become martyrs—but we must live for our religion.
(This is not , by the way, what Hamas and Hezbollah have as their slogans. "We are going to win, because they [ the Israelis, the Jews] love life and we love death," according to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.)
The Torah pleads with us to choose life: God has put before us,” Life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life‑ if you and your offspring would live by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him (Deuteronomy 30:19‑20).
We choose life in leading a life filled with the spirit of kedushah, of holiness, of hesed verachamim, of lovingkindness towards each other.
If we follows these guidelines, and truly study and learn our religious teachings, while we are alive and well, we will be able to say of our selves," Dus Heist gelebt" --That what you call living. Lechayimn to us all.