There is a common custom not to inscribe Torah books with “From the Library of John Doe,” “This Book Belongs to . . .” or similar Hebrew equivalents. Instead, the name itself is written with no preamble. Some have the custom to preface their names with “LaHashem haaretz umeloah,” “The earth and all that fills it belong to G‑d,” or the acronym lamed, hay, vav.
The custom is attributed to Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid (“the pious”) 1150-1217, who writes in his ethical will that people should “not write in a holy book that it is theirs. Rather, they should write their name without writing it is theirs.”
Some explain that this custom is a fitting reminder that nothing truly belongs to us; it is only entrusted to us. Accordingly, one should follow this practice not just with regard to Torah books, but with all personal belongings.
What a remarkable attitude of detachment in recognition of God’s sovereignty and generosity.
Imagine extending the approach more broadly: The earth and all that fills it belong to God. This MacBook, this iPhone, this winter jacket, this meal, etc. belong to God. And I am ready to hand it over to whoever is in need of it when my stewardship of it should cease.
In his piece, “The Patient As A Person,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says:
Striving for personal success is a legitimate and wholesome ingredient of the person. The danger begins when personal success becomes a way of thinking, the supreme standard of all values. Success as the object of supreme and exclusive concern is both pernicious and demonic. Such passion knows no limit. According to my own medical theory, more people die of success than of cancer.
Heschel contends that “making money is expensive” and that “making money may cost us values that no money can buy.”
Is it really possible to teach lessons about knowledge being for its own sake and learning being its own reward? How, in our hyper-utilitarian age of credentials, competition, and consumerism can such things be instilled and affirmed?
Here is a story from when I studied in Poland.
It so happened that I would be absent on the date of a scheduled exam in “Main Problems in Philosophy” due to a conference and so I arranged to write my exam in the professor’s office in advance.
I showed up to his office at 1 o’clock and he handed me a piece of paper with two questions that he had written out for me:
On this anniversary of Saint John XXIII’s death, I took the opportunity to re-read Hannah Arendt’s chapter, “Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli: A Christian on St. Peter’s Chair from 1958 to 1963” in her book Men in Dark Times.
It is an amusing title for the German Jewish political theorists reflections on his pontificate and, more broadly, his whole life and death.
By calling him “A Christian” in this emphatic sense, she intended to convey the remarkable extent to which Pope John XXIII wanted to follow Christ, “to suffer and be despised for Christ and with Christ”, and to “care nothing for the judgments of the world, even the ecclesiastical world.”
I do not suppose that thinking and writing about death every day will necessarily make it any easier to die one day or will make me any better at it.
I do know, however, that I will not always be in a position of wanting to think and write about these topics and so now is the time for it.
In Josef Pieper’s Death and Immortality, I just came across this excellent paragraph:
As a general rule, so-called “thinking about death” is probably a poor way of learning to die. Georges Bernanos in one of his last imaginative works, the Dialogues des Carmélites, has the dying prioress say: “I have meditated on death every hour of my life, but that does not help me at all now.” And when the philosopher Peter Wust learned for certain that he would never leave his sickbed, he asked in a diary note, evidently with profound surprise, why all philosophy failed him now.