Shabbat Bo: When Will Death Come?

Have you seen the television commercial for heart health that begins with a person very matter-of-factly receiving a note that says “your heart attack is coming tomorrow.” As we know, says the voice-over, such events happen without any warning. If you could know when a life-threatening event would happen, you could prepare for it, dodge it – even, as in our Jewish legends, try to avoid the Angel of Death by changing your name, or heading to the town of Luz (where no one ever died).

This week our reading, the second segment of the parashah according to our Triennial Cycle count, begins with a terrifying declaration: come midnight, all the first born of Egypt shall die. Terrifying, yes, but perhaps some people would like to have such certainty. After all, there’s even a “Death Clock” on the internet. Very appealing, perhaps, to fill in the information it requests – but would you believe the answer?

Our ancestors were aware that they were part of a never ending cycle of life and death; that they, like all that lived and moved, would one day stop living, stop moving. Curiously, ancient Hebrews did not seem to worry so much about life after death – at least, not to the extent that our Torah speaks of it. When our ancestors died, according to our Scriptures, they either had a “good death”, which meant being surrounded by loved ones who cared for and buried the body afterward, or a “bad death”, which meant that one died in agony – of war, disease, famine, and other horrible causes – and that there was no sure burial for the body. A “good death” was indicated by the idiom “gathered to one’s ancestors”, and a “bad death” was expressed by the term “going down to She’ol”. (A helpful site for more information, including what the ancient Hebrews DID believe about life after death, is in the Jewish Encyclopdia: Sheol.)

The fear of death, however, was as powerful for them as it is for us. When would death come? how? when will we be deprived of those we love? In most cases, there is no certainty. Even in our first verse of this week’s reading, there is one tiny letter that hints at the uncertain territory between life and death. In Exodus 11.4 it is literally written: כחצת הלילה – “some time around midnight”. The single letter khaf indicates “sort of”, “almost”, or “about”.

That’s as close as we get in Judaism to the ultimate truth of life and death. That letter khaf stands in between us and the complete, transcendent truth. We cannot know the time of our death, or any of the other things we want to know the most, and the khaf is there to remind us of that.

Don’t let the khaf get you down, though. Consider this tiny message from the Hebrew letter: the letter khaf has the same name as the word “hand”, and a khaf has the numerical values of two tens, that it, two yuds, which designate a Name of G-d. The little khaf that stands between you and death reminds you that you are in the hands of G-d. And no matter where you go, what you fear, or what happens to you when, you can never fall out of the hands of G-d.

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