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.
There’s this Jewish prayer I like very much called the Hashkiveinu.
Here’s the text of it:
Lie us down to peace, Adonai our God, and raise us up to life, our king (protector), and spread over us the shelter of your peace, and direct us with good advice before You, and save us for the sake of your name, and look out for us, and keep enemies, plagues swords, famines, and troubles from our midst, and remove Satan from in front of us and from behind us, and cradle us in the shadow of your wings, for You are God who guards us and saves us, for You are God. Our gracious and merciful king (protector). Guard our departure and our arrival to life and to peace, from now and ever more.
Isn’t it remarkable to contemplate being “raised up to life” before falling asleep?
Yes, there is the hope in being raised to “this same life” the following morning. But the prayer is also evocative of being raised to everlasting life. As sleep seems to be a death but actually leads to a new day, so death seems to be an end but leads to resurrection.
Photo: First or second century Jewish tomb at Emmaus in Israel
It is told that there was once a grandson who claimed that his grandfather had been a hidden saint.
In attesting to his grandfather’s virtue, the grandson recounted the honourable work that his grandfather would do, the hours that he committed to prayer and study, and that he would donate ten percent to the poor.
The listeners were not particularly impressed since these are characteristics of any righteous and observant Jew.
The grandson continued saying, “My grandfather would give a tenth of his profits to [charity] and he would give a tenth of his losses as well.”
On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, Rabbi YY Jacobson released this video telling the dramatic story of a Jew who survived the Holocaust, became a Catholic priest, and sought to receive a Jewish burial alongside his parents’ graves in Poland.
I have shared this story many times today and gotten a wide range of reactions from friends about it.
The wisest comment, in my view, came from a friend who said, “One has to be somehow ‘living in the hyphen’ to appreciate such a story.”
Instead, the story of “the complexity of a soul” (as Rabbi YY Jacobson puts it) demands a certain openness and receptivity in order to be touched by it. Such complexity may unsettle many of us but we can take comfort in knowing that none of our souls are too complex for God.
On two distinct occasions this past week, I have heard references to a Jewish text (the source of which is still a bit unclear to me) that presents a striking image juxtaposing how we enter the world and how we leave it.
Here’s the excerpt:
All those coming to this world, come in crying and depart the world crying. They come in voices and depart with voices. They arrive from secretion and decay and return to secretion and decay. They come in from darkness and return to darkness. They arrive from within towards the outside and when they depart it is also from one place towards the outside. They come from a place where no living being can see to a place that no one will ever see. They come from a place of impurity and return to a place of impurity. They come naked and depart naked. And so Job said: naked have I come from the womb of my mother and naked will I come back there. But they come with hand clenched together but depart with open hands as a newborn baby always comes to this world with his fist closed as if to say, all this world is for me to take possession, but when one dies, his hands are always open as if to say: I have nothing in this world. They arrive with kindness and compassion and depart with kindness and compassion. They arrive with no desire of their own and depart with no desire of their own. They come because of love and they depart with love.
What a beautiful meditation on the journey of life.
May all our lives be an opening of our hands and hearts in generosity until we return to God in love.
On the First Night of Hanukkah this year, I had the great joy of being Jerusalem and, more specifically, in the vibrant neighbourhood of Nachlaot.
I joined some friends outdoors, warm beverages in hand, and we sat outdoors enjoying the light of the hanukkiah. Throughout Jerusalem, there is a big emphasis on publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah, as has always been the aim but as has not always been the possibility on the holiday.
After some time, we began a stroll throughout the neighbourhood. Every few doors, we came upon families lighting their hanukkiot, saying the blessings, singing songs and playing instruments, serving soup and latkes to their neighbours, and enjoying being in the Jewish homeland.
The other day, my professor shared this striking and evocative quotation by Maurice Blanchot, who was good friends with Levinas. (Levinas described him as “a man without opportunism, that’s the moral touch with him.)
Here’s the quotation:
What does it mean to be Jewish? Why does it exist? It exists so that the idea of the road as a just movement exists; it exists so that in and through the road the experience of strangeness asserts itself to us in an irreducible relationship; it exists so that, through the authority of this experience, we learn to speak. To be a “man of the road” is at all times to be ready to set out on the road, a demand for uprooting, an affirmation of nomadic truth. Thus the Jewish being is opposed to the pagan being. To be a pagan is to be fixed, to be rooted to the ground in a way, to establish oneself by a pact with the permanence which authorises the stay and which is certified by the certainty of the ground. The journey, nomadism, responds to a relationship that possession does not satisfy. To set out on the road, to be on the road, is already the meaning of the words heard by Abraham: “Go away from your native place, from your kinship, from your home”.
In Judaism, there is the idea: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
This is very good. And yet, it is but half the equation. As much as each person is a whole world, there is also a sense in which the world really can and does go on without us. But far from diminishing us, this perspective can give us tremendous peace.
On the Feast of Christ the King, I was at Emmaus with the Community of the Beatitudes for mass. During his homily, the priest traced history of nationalism and totalitarianism throughout the twentieth century. Then, he said, “Today the conflict is more with my individual kingdom, my personal sovereignty. Today we don’t have much sense of the common good because we think it’s against our personal good.”
“So teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.” – Psalm 90:9
The other day I came across quite the footnote in a collection of Hasidic Tales.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that a person is born with a fixed number of words to speak; when they are spoken, the person dies. Imagine that this is true for you. Every word you speak brings you closer to your death. The next time you are about to utter a word, ask yourself whether the word is worth dying for.
What a warning against idle speech! And what a reminder of the power and dignity of our words!
Each word I write on this daily blog about death, too, brings me nearer to my own death.
There is something solemn about this, but also something profoundly invigorating.