I had no warning.
It was just meant to be my annual physical exam. No health problems. No complaints. Both my mother and father lived into healthy old age. I was confident it would be like all the other times. I would receive my usual reassuring words that all was well coupled with the suggestion that I remember to return in six months to a year.
It seemed strange that when the doctor called me to sit down in his office to provide me with the results of his examinations he wasn't smiling.
It was then I began to suspect something might be wrong.
"It is hard for me to have to tell you this," he began. “There is no way I can sugarcoat it. You are a rabbi, a man of faith, and I know you will find a way to cope with the dreadful news I must share with you. You have a fatal disease that is extremely rare, and there is no known cure."
I hardly heard the rest of what he was saying.
My head began to spin. I had been the rabbi of a congregation for almost four decades. In my pastoral duties, I counseled the sick and I gave strength to the dying. Most often I seemed to know what to say to those confronted by the gravest challenges. I helped people face death.
I rushed home to Google my illness. That was a big mistake.
Yet this time I realized it was so totally different.
This wasn't happening to someone else. This was ME!
And for the first time in my life, even though I am 77 years old, I realized I'm actually going to die.
How do we forget that truth about our existence? It is the universal reality of life, yet a fact all of us choose to ignore. We assume we will live forever even though no one has ever accomplished that feat. We expunge the possibility from our minds as if by denying its inevitability we can prevent its certainty.
We begin our journey to death from the day we are born. But when we are reminded of our final destination, we react with the same kind of shock I expressed in the doctor's office.
The name of my disease is cardiac amyloidosis. Amyloids are proteins that can attack different parts of the body. If they invade the brain, the result is Alzheimer's. When they affect other areas, such as the kidneys or liver, these organs lose their ability to perform their specific functions. My problem is in the heart. The amyloids that shouldn't be there are hardening the muscle, making it more difficult to pump the blood needed for life.
The doctor tried to be reassuring. I tuned him out. I didn't fully listen to the rest of what he told me. I rushed home to Google what the Internet had to teach me about my illness.
That was a big mistake.
From the time of diagnosis, the first site I came up with declared with a note of certainty, a patient usually has six months to live. I soon learnt that this information was outdated. There were projections that spoke of years, not months. And then there was news of stem cell research and other possible therapies being worked on in laboratories around the world that offered long range hope.
I came to realize that my diagnosis was not the same as an imminent death certificate. No one could really say with assurance how long I have to live.
And then the thought hit me. If my disease didn't carry an expiration date I wasn't much different than anyone else on earth. Life itself is a fatal disease for which there is no known cure.
Yes, I'm going to die. So is everyone. Will I go sooner rather than later? Perhaps. But who knows?
What the doctor had really confirmed for me with his dire news was simply that I am mortal. And that is something I surely knew. It is no less than the biblical truth that we come from the dust of the earth and to the dust of the earth we shall return.
Yet becoming aware of death by diagnosis rather than by awareness of human destiny totally altered my perception. Death moved from the back of my mind to the forefront of my consciousness. It was no longer some half acknowledged truth barely granted realistic acceptance. The thought of death became my daily companion.
My recognition of mortality has added incredibly positive dimensions to my existence.
And now, more than a year after the initial diagnosis, I've made an amazing discovery. My companion became my friend. My recognition of mortality has added incredibly positive dimensions to my existence. In many ways, this has been the most fulfilling, the most contented, and the happiest time of my life.
Realizing as I never did before that the days I have left on earth are limited in number makes me treasure every one of them far more than I ever thought possible. Drawing on the insights I have gained from my studies and from my faith, I do not fear death as the great unknown. What I have found to my great surprise is that living life with a real awareness of its eventual end can actually be a source of great blessing.
What is it that makes us so afraid of death?
We take many journeys in life where we know very little about our destination. But somehow death is different. Our most powerful fear is rooted in our inability to imagine our nonexistence.
Perhaps we simply will disappear without a trace. Perhaps we will no longer have any consciousness of our being. Perhaps to be dead means to be gone forever with the only remnant of our having existed confined to memories among the living.
We are afraid because we fear that nothing about us will matter anymore. We will be….. simply nothing. And that is as frightening as it is unimaginable.
But what if the reality of death is totally different? What if death is not the end of life but the beginning of a new kind of existence?
It is almost impossible for us to think of our survival beyond the grave. The meaning of our selves is defined by our bodies as essential parts of our being. We spend our days on earth concerned with caring for our physical needs. How could we possibly continue to exist when what makes us who we are turns to dust?
Our minds are incapable of coming to grips with a changed perspective of this magnitude.
A remarkable Midrash offers us a way to begin to think about the possibility of life after death. It asks us to imagine the following scenario:
Picture twins before birth resting peacefully in the womb of their mother. Their mouths closed, fed with no effort on their part through the tube entering their navels, warmed by the fluids of the embryonic sac, they feel completely at peace and secure. They can't possibly conceive of a more comfortable or different way of life.
Allow them now, if you will, the gift of consciousness. Assume that they are aware of their surroundings, and imagine that they begin to consider their future. They recognize changes taking place around them, feel themselves descending, and start to debate what is going to happen to them.
The brothers each have strongly opposing views. One is by nature an optimist, the other a pessimist. The first is a believer, the second a skeptic. The believer is certain that another life awaits them after they are expelled from their present home. "I can't believe," he says with assurance, "that God would have put us here for nine months, cared for us, nurtured us, and allowed us to grow and develop without any purpose. There must be some greater plan that we still do not know. Our presence here could only have been preparation for a more glorious life to follow. It's impossible to think that all we can look forward to is total oblivion."
His brother, however, is much more of a realist. He despises wishful thinking and unsupportable expectations. For him, faith – as Marx would put it – is no more than “an opiate for the masses." "There you go," he says disdainfully to his twin, "confusing your hope with truth. The obvious fact is that everything that gives us life – the womb we live in, the cord from which we are fed, the security of our sac – is only here. Once we leave this place, we must die."
The believing brother again tries to make his case. He suggests that once out of the womb, they will be able to move even more freely. He talks about the possibility of other ways of getting food. He shares his dream of a kind of independence that goes beyond their present imagination. But unfortunately he cannot put it into words. Lacking any contact as yet with life as it's lived on earth, he is stymied when his brother puts down his views as impossible and asks him to defend his ideas with concrete examples.
So the twins come ever closer to their destined meeting with birth, separated by drastically different opinions about their fate. The believer is confident he will not only survive, but be even better off than he was before. The skeptic morosely awaits the collapse of his world in the coming down of the final curtain.
Suddenly, the water inside the womb bursts. There is a pushing and pounding. The twins realize that they are being forced from their home. The traumatic moment is here. The believer is the first one to exit the wall. His twin brother, still inside, listens attentively for any clue from the other side. With grieving heart, he takes note of a piercing cry coming from his brother.
"So I was right after all," he tells himself. "I just heard my poor brother’s scream of death." And at that very moment, a joyous mother and father are congratulating each other on the birth of their first child, who has just made his presence known by his cries of life.
What appears like death when viewed from one perspective is in reality a higher form of life. Death and rebirth are synonymous; one leads to the other.
How can we live outside of our bodies? How can we live outside of the womb? Both questions present levels of difficulty that are equally unanswerable to those unaware of alternatives. Yet the miracle of birth enables us to rise to a higher level of being even without the seemingly life-giving support of the umbilical cord. So too, isn't it possible that what we call death is the way our souls have been granted the freedom to soar above the physical limitations of body and achieve a more blessed spiritual existence?
Elizabeth Kubler Ross, who dedicated her life to studying death and the dying, wrote that in her many years of being present at the moment when life slipped away what most moved her was the sight of the sudden serenity and peacefulness that invariably accompanied the passage from one state to another. She has chosen to describe death as "breaking out of a cocoon and emerging as a butterfly." Our bodies during life represent physical limitations. Without them we are for the first time able to soar to heights previously unattainable.
The 19th century Hasidic Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk taught his disciples not to fear death by offering yet another parable. He told them, "Death is just a matter of going from one room to another – and the latter is far more beautiful."
I had an opportunity to share these insights with a number of teenagers in a high school class I taught at my congregation. I encouraged questions and free-flowing discussions and responded to the interests of the students. One day the group decided to talk about that day's major headlined story, the death of a relatively young pop star who was an idol to most of them.
"We talk about God all the time and yet this seems so unfair," was the general consensus. How could their hero have died with such a glorious future still before him? Wasn't death the ultimate tragedy that challenges our belief in the goodness of God?
I wondered how best to explain to them that the apparent cruelty of death didn't necessarily negate faith in a loving Creator. And so I told them the story of the as yet unborn twins in the womb debating their destiny. I asked them to open their minds to the possibility of another world after this one. I explained that this was the view of Jewish tradition and urged them to consider its ramifications.
Suppose, I said to them by way of a comparison that suddenly entered my mind, we were at this moment having a great party. Picture it as an event like no other that you have ever attended. All of us are enjoying ourselves immensely when there is an unexpected knock on the door. We greet the uninvited guest who announces that Paul must come with him immediately and leave the party.
All of us feel bad. Poor Paul, we say. He's having such a fantastic time and now he has to go. What is it we have to know, I ask my students, before we can decide whether this impromptu invitation to leave us warrants our sadness? The students are quick to answer. Of course we have to know first the reason for the messenger’s mission. Is it to tell him something bad has happened to a member of his family and rush him to a hospital? Or is it perhaps to take him to a bigger and better party - to a surprise birthday bash planned by friends who at this very moment are waiting for him to appear so that they can shower him with gifts and with love?
The students understood my analogy. We can never define enforced parting as depressing until we fully understand its purpose. True, we would have a right to feel sad for ourselves for now missing Paul’s presence. But we ought to feel compensated for our lack by the knowledge that Paul was fortunate enough to go to someplace even better.
This is an excerpt from Rabbi Blech's latest as yet unpublished work, Why We Shouldn't Fear Death.