Death as gratitude

I love Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writing so much.

It has that confident aphoristic quality to it that elicits attention.

Such is the case with his short essay entitled, “Death as Homecoming.”

Right at the beginning, Rabbi Heschel proposes that “in a way death is the test of the meaning of life. If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd. Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death.”

Still, Heschel is keen to note that the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition do not stress “the problem of dying” so much as they stress “how to sanctify life.”

Yet, even for all the emphasis on the primacy of life in Judaism, Rabbi Heschel still suggests: “Death may be a supreme spiritual act, turning oneself over to eternity. The moment of death, a moment of ecstasy. A moment of no return to vanity.”

So deeply absorbed by the themes of mystery, awe, wonder, and gratitude, Heschel says: “We have been given so much. Why is the outcome of our lives, the sum of our achievements, so little? Our embarrassment is like an abyss. Whatever we give away is so much less than what we receive. Perhaps this is the meaning of dying: to give one’s whole self away.”

Heschel thinks that when our whole life – and our very selves – is a response to the question: “How can I give thanks for all that God has given me?”, then it is possible for death to be an act of gratitude.

“For this act of giving away,” says Heschel, “is reciprocity on man’s part for God’s gift of life. For the pious man it is a privilege to die.”

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