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Don’t Burn the Day

Don’t Burn the Day

Dave Matthews, two funerals and one wake up call.


This week I had the unusual experience of being asked to officiate at two funerals. While never exactly enjoyable, I find that they are reflection opportunities bar none. Nothing is quite as sobering as witnessing that final brief journey from surface to deep six.

One of the relatives, a kind man in his seventies, looked me in the eye just after and noted, “Rabbi, that’s going to be me someday. How am I supposed to process that?” My first thought was Man, it's late in the game to start mulling this one over. And my second was, But good! Better late than never.

On my way home I slid open my Ipod and hit shuffle. There is a particular tune that always seems to pop up when I’m in a contemplative mood. It’s by Dave Matthews and it’s called Pig. This verse caught me:

What if a great wave should wash us all away?
Just thinking out loud
Don’t mean to dwell on this dying thing
But look at my blood
It’s alive right now

I don’t know all that much about Dave Matthews and I don’t want to make him out to be some great philosopher, but I think he really hits something deep in this song. Counter-intuitively, I end up feeling strangely alive and happy after confronting the ultimate conclusion of the human experience, and I know now that the two concepts are intrinsically linked.

I end up feeling strangely alive after confronting death.

In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon informs us that it is better to go to a house of mourning than to one of feasting. Why? Because the party, while briefly fun, generally serves to mask our ongoing battle with reality. Being forced to look death in the face is like acquiring a mental scalpel that invariably causes us to slash away all of the pettiness and superfluities of our day to day lives. With those gone, we start to deeply appreciate life.

I think this is what Dave means when he sings “don’t burn the day” – don’t waste your precious time fixated on that which is unimportant and saps all of our energy and joy.

The time is short but that’s all right
Maybe I’ll go in the middle of the night
Take your hands from your eyes, my love
All good things must come to an end some time
But don’t burn the day away
Don’t burn the day away…

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of blessed memory, would drill into us “the battle for life is the battle for sanity” –theories are all fine and good but until we are able to live them, to put into practice what we profess to hold dear, we are not truly alive. It’s this tendency to forget, to lose inspiration, that makes integration of expanded consciousness so bedeviling.

Sometimes we can go for weeks or months riding a wave of growth and internal achievement only to slam headlong into a wall of humiliating failure. I had such an experience last week where I not only burned the day, I charred it and it left me feeling physically ill. The trick when we hit those turbulent patches is to strive to remember what's intrinsically important in life.

The Talmud tells us that when we feel our “evil urge” overpowering us we should say the Shema, a profound meditation on the Unity of the Creator, thereby helping us to stay focused on what is right and good. If that fails we are encouraged to remember the day of death. There we are again, with that splash of cold water meant to jolt us out of our ethical apnea.

It would be understandable to view this all as rather morbid – but it’s not. It’s actually quite life affirming. Unfortunately it's just not possible to live life to the fullest until we have fully embraced the totality of what it is, for better or worse. We spend so much of our life pretending that we belong to a special club of people who do not age, do not suffer and do not die. We are in for a series of rude awakenings.

To the very end and beyond, it’s all about love.

The point of the Jewish burial and the seven-day mourning period is specifically to focus the mourners on the loss so that they can experience it deeply, process and then move on. It’s actually forbidden to mourn any more than one full year. At that point the beauty and joy inherent in all of creation must once again become dominant.

Judaism considers sadness to be a bad character trait. We allow for broken heartedness, but never despair or depression. That would be tantamount to a denial of reality, the reality that the universe and everything in it is good. (Here’s the algorithm: God is infinite + God is good = Everything is infinitely good.) Even death is called good, as the Midrash teaches: four of the days of creation are described as "good," except for the sixth day which is called “very good.” What is the “very” referring to? Amazingly, to the day of death.

This is why we temper our mourning. Because even the darkest moments are predicated on the goodness and love of the Creator. Even that final, mysterious journey is for our good.

To the very end and beyond, it’s all about love.

Love, love, love, what more is there?
‘Cause we need the light of love in here
Don’t beat your head
Dry your eyes
Let the love in there
They’re bad times
But that’s okay
Just look for love in it

December 18, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Caroline Bridges, March 8, 2016 5:01 PM

A good thoughful article

I enjoyed reading this. My 26yr only child niece just died of brain cancer. You can, t help but ask why? Why that one Lord. We don, t know why but we do need to that we live in a fallen world, in this life we will trouble, its just that when it comes we have yo deal with it...its how we deal eith it that matters. I like what you said about mourning...its not that we forget the person after a year and often tears will come, but to stay in a place of deep mourning for too long can immobile us.

(5) Anonymous, January 7, 2014 3:37 PM

Practice the Judaism you preach

I was sorry to read a line on an AISH website " I don’t want to make him out to be some great philosopher," I would encourage you as a human and as a leader in a Jewish community to be open and encouraging of people who use their art to speak their own truth, to possibly lend some insight into the subject of death. Since you personally (G-D forbid) have not died and don't have THE definitive answer, please allow others to express their thoughts in songs. You use his songs as an example, then trash him in the same article. If I remember a verse of Torah "G-d does not want you (Zuzua) to be as great as Moses, he wants you to be as great as Zuzua. DM may (or may not) be as great as Maimonides, but he is great as himself. If others can learn from him, it might be just the words that make a difference in their life.

(4) Barbara Dagen, December 22, 2010 11:32 AM

Depression is an illness.

Depression in an illness. No one wants to be ill. If Judaism considers depression a bad character trait then why did G-d create it? No one can dictate how long one mourns a loved one.This is also part of G-d's creation.

(3) Lynn, December 20, 2010 5:43 PM

Days like this

A general comment first: DM has gone through a lot of loss in his life, inclduing that of a beloved sister. So it is no surprise that he ruminates and philosiphizes on death so frequently in his music. More personally, I have had a VERY bad two weeks at my work...the gist of which is that as much as I love it, it doesn't always love me. Coming to terms with this means that I have to find *myself* elsewhere, and it also means that I have been thinking more and more of the future. I firmly, deeply, irrevocably believe that Hashem has a path for all of us, which we follow when we do our best to help ourselves. So I say Shema every night, and sometimes multiple times a day, to remind myself of that, and to know that this too, is good (or will be, someday).

(2) miriam wolkenfeld cohen, December 19, 2010 4:33 PM

americans do not like to think of death

my lovely neighbor just died of prostate cancer, and his wife a devout catholic did not have any sort of a funeral, just a quick cremation, no visiting, and that was that. There is supposed to be a memorial service in January. But we had no way to mourn with her and his sisters, and it is terrible not to be able to say goodbye and to comfort the mourners. The Jewish way of mourning is one where you accept death as part of life, and you are helped by the people who come and visit.

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