Loss and Love ~ Shavuot ~ 7 Sivan 5779 / 10 June 2019
Jun 18th 2019

“So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Eternal made her conceive, and she bore a son... Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:13-17)

Shavuot is connected to King David because of this genealogy. Through Ruth and Boaz, people who acted with Hesed, love and kindness, to redeem a broken family, the ancestor of the messiah was born.

A Talmudic tradition teaches that  when God created human life, each person was allotted a set number of years. Adam, the first human being, was supposed to live 1000 years. The future shepherd, warrior, poet and monarch, David ben Yishai, was intended to die in infancy. However, when Adam heard this, he implored God to allocate David 70 years of his own life, which is why he lived 930 years and King David lived until age 70. You don’t have to take the story literally to recognize its underlying message: David was born through Adam’s act of kindness. (Yalkut Shimoni 1.41, with other traditions in Zohar and Islamic writings)

Another rabbinic legend imagines David as a student of Torah whose birth and death occurred on Shavuot. David carried existential anxiety that his death was immanent. God had disclosed to David that he would die on a Shabbat. Since Torah is associated with hayyei olam, eternal life, David believed that the Angel of Death would not take the soul of one engaged in Torah study. He spent every Shabbat in unceasing study. One Sabbath, which was also Shavuot, as David studied Torah, a wind blew open a curtain in his room. He stopped to investigate and the Malakh Hamavet snatched his soul. Even King David was mortal. Even the study of Torah didn’t save him.

Yet we sing, “David Melekh Yisrael lives and is well.”  And we do associate David with the messiah.

So what if….

What if David, or the people we love, could live forever?

What would eternal life bring?

Rachel, the hero of Dara Horn’s fascinating new novel, Eternal Life, is a woman who can’t  die. She is a recently widowed great-grandmother, with an adult son living in the basement, and a granddaughter engaged in genetic research. Her family doesn’t know that she’s really 2,000 years old, destined to live forever because of her youthful infidelity and a rash vow. She appears to be a senior citizen, but anytime Rachel burns to death—a reenactment of her first death during the destruction of the Temple—she is reborn in an 18-year-old body, entering adulthood again.

Each iteration of Rachel’s life brings another cycle of grief. Each “version,” as she terms her re-enactments of work, family and home, brings more losses. The loved ones who now surround her remind her of the many loved ones who previously died. For Rachel, peeling off the onion layers of life reveals other layers of previous life. Relationships with her children have a dull predictability.

Dara Horn, who will be a guest of our congregation during our Snowbird Shabbat this winter, writes about Rachel, “At one point she tried to estimate how many thousands of times she had nursed an infant, how many meals she had cooked for others, how many spoons of medicine she had raised to other people’s lips, how many withered hands she had held at bedsides, how many bodies she had buried in the earth.” Rachel’s perspective on mortals who have a one-way journey from cradle to grave makes her feel solitary and disassociated from life, despite and because of her immortality.

“The hard part isn’t living forever,” Rachel observes. “It’s making life worth living.” The gnawing question at the heart of this engaging and wise novel is “not how Rachel finds meaning in her eternal life. It is how we, despite our portions of sorrow, tedium and disaster, persist in finding meaning in ours.”

At one point, Hannah, her current granddaughter, comments about the fleeting nature of her son’s childhood. Many of us share a similar tristesse about the passage of life. Hannah describes the awareness of mortality as “a secret passage underneath everything that’s always flowing with this constant stream of sorrow... And I just keep thinking that if no one had to die, that tunnel would dry up and disappear, and all these happy things wouldn’t be so sad anymore.”  Rachel’s reaction is one of the essential moral messages of Eternal Life. “That tunnel of sorrow that flows through everything?… You need that tunnel, Hannah. Nothing means anything without it.” 

Loss—what we endure from the moment we cry, being separated from a mother, the tears that flow when our parent leaves us at day care, the sobbing when we have lost our first love, the sorrow that accompanies the death of loved ones—these are not only expressions of sadness, they are also the “necessary losses” that can be sources of hope. 

For what can make a difference in the face of loss are the small acts of kindness, ẖesed, that add love to life.

Leviticus contains one of the major reviews of the festival calendar. After the description of Shavuot’s rituals (23:15-21), and before the presentation of the next holiday, the text inserts the commandments of peah and leket, leaving the corner of the field and allowing the poor to gather fallen sheaves of grain. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, one of the rabbis who rejected Reform Judaism, but articulated a modern form of Orthodoxy, taught that this is to teach us that before we wave the Shavu’ot grain sheaf (omer), we are mandated to take care of the gleanings of the field. In order to properly say to the kohen, this is my sacred story and I am bringing the first produce of the season, one must make sure to care for others.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein took this analysis even deeper. He notes that the command to reserve the corners and the fallen grain for the poor occurs in two places in Leviticus. In one place (Leviticus 19:9), the mitzvah is preceded by a series of prohibitions relating to interpersonal offences. In this context, the Torah speaks to individuals who are unconcerned with the basic rights of others, to those who would deny needy members of society their legitimate share of the harvest. Elsewhere (Leviticus 23:22), the Torah turns to those who are concerned with harvesting grain for the Shavu’ot sacrifice. Pursuing spiritual goals must not deflect us from basic social responsibilities. In both cases, we are reminded of the importance of acting with hesed.

As we recite yizkor, as we consider the painful losses we have experienced, we should also consider the sacrifices and acts of hesed that brought us to this day. Whether it was the dedication of Allied soldiers on D-Day, Israeli fighters during the Six Day war, or the love, determination and dedication of our family members, we can’t simply imagine that life will go on forever, nor we should we take our brief time on this planet for granted.

Unlike the other yamim tovim, Shavu’ot is quite brief — one day in Israel and two days in Diaspora. But in the brief time of this Yom Tov, a crucial message is given: think less about our many losses or the time we have left. Instead, devote ourselves to considering how we will use our time.

Even King David didn’t live forever. We can’t completely protect ourselves or those we love. But in this uncertain and unsettling world, we can act like Ruth and Boaz. They reached out with hesed and though their acts of love and kindness, the messianic genealogy of David became our hope, our dream and our gift to the world.