Yom Kippur Yizkor 5769 – 2008
Seeing you here today inspires me to say a blessing:
Barukh Mehayei ha-Metim
Blessed is the One who gives life to the dead
If that seems an odd thing to say, let me explain.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said (as quoted in the Talmud), “One who sees a good friend…after twelve months says, ‘Barukh Mehayei HaMetim – Blessed be the One who gives life to the dead'” (Berakhot 58b).
If we have not seen each other in a year, then we have not been part of each other’s lives, at least not in a direct way. And that is very similar to being dead, God forbid. When two people are estranged, one might say, “He’s dead to me.” Out of sight, out of mind. When friends and relatives simply lose touch, the effect is like death.
Sometimes when we see a friend or relative after a long interval, we don’t recognize them. They don’t look the same. They are changed. The person we knew ten or fifty years ago is gone. The discontinuity is like death.
We exist only in the minds of others. If you are in a crowd of strangers, it is as though you don’t exist. If no one knows anything about you at all, then all they see is a body, at most, but it is not really you. They can’t see you because they don’t know you.
But when we come together again after a long separation; when we reconcile with family and friends after an estrangement; when we come to know another person, distinguishing them from an anonymous body, a sacred spark is lit. Barukh Mehayei HaMetim.
The blessing …Barukh Ata Adonai, Mehayei HaMetim appears in the Amida, which is recited three times each day, five times on Yom Kippur.
Our prayer book (Mahzor Hadash) renders the blessing, “Blessed are You, O Lord, who confers immortality upon the departed” and “who grants immortality to the departed.” The old Silverman mahzor had “…who callest the dead to life everlasting.” The Rabbinical Assembly mahzor has “Praised are You, Lord, Master of life and death.”
Many years ago, the Reform Movement removed this line, or rather replaced it, in Hebrew and English, with “Blessed are You…who gives life to all.”
What do these words mean, what do they signify? What is “mehayei ha-metim”? The word mehayei means giving life, enlivening, causing to live, making animate. The word metim, plural of met, is a participle that means someone or something that is lifeless, dead, inanimate, barren, broken, or dying.
Sometimes the word metim, like the English word dying, is used metaphorically.
In English we say, “I’m dying to see the play,” or “I’m dying of boredom” or of shame or of thirst. We say one is emotionally dead, an idea is dead, or a company (such as Lehman brothers) is dead. My hope for a timely retirement is dead. A romance is dead.
There are some people who are dead not in body but in spirit. The Talmud puts it this way: “The wicked are called dead even while alive; the righteous are alive even when they are dead” (Berakhot 18b).
When a wicked person is spiritually awakened by teshuva, repentance, and returns to the ways of the Torah, then that person is brought back to life. It even happens to non-Jews — think of those in prison who have turned their lives around through Islam or Christianity. Through the saving power of Torah, God brings some people back to life. Blessed are You, who revives the spiritually dead.
There was a people once that was dead. Their homes and businesses destroyed, their fields burned, their neighbors killed, their land occupied, while they were sent into slavery in exile. Their nation was dead, their hope was dead. And yet, thanks to the vision of a man name Ezekiel, they came back to life.
The hand of Adonai was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of Adonai, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,
And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.
And Adonai said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live?
And I answered, O Adonai Elohim, Thou knowest.
Again Adonai said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of Adonai.
Thus saith Adonai Elohim unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:
And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am Adonai.
So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.
And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.
Then said Adonai unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith Adonai Elohim; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.
So I prophesied as Adonai commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great host.
The vision of Ezekiel is a most powerful image. Like other prophesies it is an allegory. It is perfectly clear from the context of the book of Ezekiel that this vision is meant as a prophecy of renewal for the nation of Israel which had withered during its period of Exile. For those who missed the allegory, the Prophet explicates:
Then Adonai said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole House of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off from our parts.
Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith Adonai Elokim; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.
And ye shall know that I am Adonai, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,
And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I Adonai have spoken it, and performed it, saith Adonai.
And indeed, the People of Israel, spiritually and physically as dry bones in Babylonian exile, were resurrected in Israel.
And indeed, the people of Israel, a pile of bones and ashes in Europe, were resurrected in Israel. Barukh Mehayei HaMetim — blessed are You who revives the dead. Once given up for dead, we now celebrate a 60th birthday.
Part of that extraordinary national revival has to do with land. Under Ottoman rule of the Land of Israel, there were five classes of land and ownership. One of them is called mawāt, literally, dead land. Dead land is arid, unfertile, untillable, unproductive, unclaimed. And so when you see the greenhouses in the sand, the gardens by the Dead Sea, the groves at Qetura, you can say, Barukh Mehayei HaMetim — blessed be the One who makes the desert bloom. When you see the palm tree, dubbed Methusaleh, growing from a dried up dead 1,800-year-old date seed, you can say, Barukh Mehayei HaMetim.
There is another part of our national revival. It can be seen right here in this sanctuary. Not long ago, this congregation was written off (by some) as dead, beyond revival. And here we are! We are not the oldest, and we are not the youngest; we are not the biggest, and we are not the smallest; we are not the richest, and we are not the poorest. But we are the most alive! Barukh Mehayei HaMetim.
When a relationship is dead, it sometimes can be revived. Attempts do not always work, and that is so sad. And some relationships are best not repaired. There are some people you just have to stay away from. But when reconciliation can take place, it is a great blessing.
Couples who think love is gone forever occasionally find that with a little separation, counseling, introspection, and effort, that their lost love can be restored to life.
Children and parents, brothers and sisters who did not speak with each other sometimes find, with the passage of time, with a broader perspective, with more maturity on all fronts, that they can come back together. As the prophet Malakhi said,
Lo, I will send the prophet Eliyahu to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. Malakhi 3:23-24
If you can open your door wide enough on Passover to let “all who are hungry come and eat,” if you can open your door wide enough for Eliyahu HaNavi, then you can open your door for your estranged family members. Blessed are You, who revives the dead relationship.
There are other times when relationships cannot, or should not, be repaired. We may feel emotionally drained, grieved; we may feel like we can never love, or be loved, again. But sometimes with the passage of time and change in circumstance, new opportunities for relationships, friendships, family and love arise, and our broken hearts can come alive again. “Ha-Rofe li-shevurei lev u-Mehabesh le-`atsevotam; You heal the broken-hearted and bind their wounds” (Ps. 147); Blessed are You who renews life to the dead.
The revival of the dead, in this metaphorhical sense, is a great miracle when it happens. It is a greater miracle that this power of revival, to make this happen, is given to us. The words of the berakha in the Amida prayer give us the secret method, the instrument, through which this revival is effected: mehayei ha-metim be-rahamim rabim – You bring the dead to life through rahamim rabim, through an abundance of love. If you love enough, if you try to feel love, to show love, if you let your love be stronger than all the negativity around you, then sometimes it is enough to tip the balance. Love is the instrument through which human life is created, and it is the instrument through which relationships are revived.
The language of the prophets and the language of prayer is poem and metaphor. When we say “matir asurim You free the prisoner,” we may take it metaphorically — You free those imprisoned by falsehood, by oppression, by poverty. You somekh noflim you uphold those who fall — I see too many broken legs, hips and feet to take it literally, but the metaphor is that those who have fallen flat emotionally, socially, financially or medically can get back up on their feet. The strength that people find within is amazing.
But some people are just literalists, or hyper-literalists. And that is fine. So what is the literal meaning of mehayei ha-metim?
The word metim is an active participle. Definition number one is dying, that is, in the process of dying. That is what the word means in classical and modern Hebrew. It is not a metaphor, it is the literal meaning of the word. Dying, as in, the driver was in a car crash and is dying; he is dying of cancer; she is dying of heart disease.
Sometimes death comes abruptly, unexpectedly. And other times, it comes gradually, like the winter. When that happens, there sometimes is a period in which the dying person and his loved ones can reflect on what is truly important in life, and that reflection utterly transforms life in its final period — giving life a new quality.
And sometimes people who were supposed to die live. It is a great miracle. I see it all the time — we are told the person is on the brink of death, but somehow she pulls through. Is it the wonders of modern medicine, the skill of the medical caregivers, the love and encouragement of friends and family, is it the hitherto undiscovered strength within, is it the hand of God? Whatever it is, it a miracle. Barukh Mehayei HaMetim.
The Torah does not tell us exactly what happens to us after we die. It would seem to be the $64,000 question, the one thing we might most like to know, but it is just not what the Torah is about. If the Torah does not have anything to say about this topic, why should we? There is no universal Jewish doctrine on the afterlife. Our sages have their theories, but no one really knows. It is a sign of foolishness to claim to know things we don’t know, and of wisdom to remain silent in our ignorance.
The implicit message: Our arena is this world, this life.
And so there is no answer to our grief for the loss of loved ones other than to recognize that we experience it. It is like carrying a heavy boulder. It does not get lighter with the passage of time, but we adapt, we get used to carrying it.
Some believe in bodily resurrection, but most can’t believe that.
Some believe in a spiritual heaven where embodied souls float around on clouds.
Some believe in a physical Garden of Eden, another planet where we get a new body and enjoy paradise.
Some believe in a metaphysical world of ideas, a world of truth, a Platonic ideal, a world in which the truth-which-is-Torah of which we partake is eternal and lasting and we become part of it and thereby eternal. I don’t know quite what it means, but some people believe it.
Some believe in reincarnation, either as people or as animals.
People believe a lot of things, but of course we don’t really know.
There are just certain things about our world that we are not destined to understand. “….The mysteries belong to Adonai our God, but the revealed things belong to us or our children for all time…” (Deut. 19:28).
We must admit, we don’t know what happens after we die because no one has died and lived to tell about it. None of us have ever been to that other world. Some have been very, very close, but none have been all the way to the other side and returned. But all of us were born, all of us were in that world, but none of us can exactly tell where we were or just how we got here.
The world came into being eons ago, and for most of that time, we did not exist. We are born and live only a short time — a day or a century — and for the rest of eternity we are gone again.
When we sleep, our soul “departs” — where does it go? — and returns to us with the gentle singing of birds or the harsh blast of an alarm buzzer. Our consciousness returns instantly. Or for some, only after the first cup of coffee.
We are prisoners of the dimension of time. Our days are numbered. But now scientists and mathematicians understand that not everything is bound by time. Physicists believe that there are eleven dimensions in our universe — that the world around us can best be explained if we posit eleven dimensions. Most of us directly experience only three spacial dimensions and the dimension of time, but there are several more dimensions that we cannot experience, as the ant cannot realize the height of the mountain, or the goldfish understand the passage of time. Surely God is not bound by time. What could it mean for a human soul to be free of the bonds of time?
The mysteries belong to God. There are some things we are not going to understand. But that which is revealed belongs to us. God wants us to figure out how this world works before we begin to figure out what lies beyond.
Our souls are bound up with those of our loved ones. Why do we have such feelings about our ancestors? What is it that moves us? Why are we so connected to siblings, to parents — even if it is only a biological parent or ancestor whom we never met? Can we explain this intellectually or psychoanalytically? The connection between souls is of a nature that science can not fully explain to us.
About one thing our sages do agree, though, and that is that there is some eternal existence to our souls. We are not just pieces of meat walking around, but rather, holy creatures each in the image of God and special to God. There is far more to God’s world than what we can see.
The act of faith for us is not to accept some particular myth of life after death. Rather we are bid to accept on faith — without knowing how it works or just what happens — to accept on faith that our lives — and our suffering — have meaning in a larger context, that we have some real existence that is beyond the bounds of this world, that our souls in some way participate in the eternal. The act of faith is to appreciate the many ways in which life is revived, and to cherish that life, every moment of it, be-rahamim rabin.
Barukh Ata Adonai, Mehayei ha-metim
Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to the dead
When we truly accept this faith, our lives will be changed. Eternally.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen 2008