May 16 2019 Dvar Torah

Rabbi Helen Cohn

Dylan Thomas famously wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I thought of that poem earlier this week while attending a study retreat for rabbis in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. In this idyllic setting we were studying Jewish texts about end-of-life connections and partings. I found one of the texts by the Israeli poet Leah Goldberg especially subtle and true.

The Rest of Life
שְׁאֵרִית הַחַיִּים

בְּכָל דָּבָר יֵשׁ לְפָחוֹת שְׁמִינִית
שֶׁל מָוֶת. מִשְׁקָלוֹ אֵינוֹ גָּדוֹל.
בְּאֵיזֶה חֵן טָמִיר וְשַׁאֲנָן
נִשָּׂא אוֹתוֹ אֶל כָּל אֲשֶׁר נֵלֵךְ.
בִּיקִיצוֹת יָפוֹת, בְּטִיּוּלִים,
בּשִׂיחַ אוֹהֲבִים, בְּהֶסַּח-דַּעַת
נִשְׁכָּח בְּיַרְכְּתֵי הֲוָיָתֵנוּ
תָּמִיד אִתָּנוּ. וְאֵינוֹ מַכְבִּיד.

Translated by Rabbi Steve Sager

In everything there is at least one-eighth
of death. It’s not large.
With a kind of grace hidden and luxurious
we bear it everywhere we go.
In beautiful awakenings, promenades,
in lovers’ conversation, in distraction
forgotten in the depths of our being
it is always with us. Yet not burdensome.

We ask why “one-eighth”? Although we can’t know the poet’s mind, we sense it is not a large amount, yet not nothing either. The quiet awareness of death accompanies us, encouraging us to choose life. This is the message of Yom Kippur when we wear white to remind us of our burial shroud as we pray to be written in the Book of Life.