Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Death and Downton

In Pirke Avot chapter 2, Rabbi Eliezer states:

The honor of your fellow should be as precious to you as your own, and do not be easy to anger.  Repent one day before your death.

Here in America, season three of Downton Abbey came to a crashing conclusion last night.   For those who haven’t seen it, this entire column is one enormous spoiler, so go check the weather report.

The weather in Downton is perpetually sunny.  Even the deaths are sunny – or at the very least, tidy, as if scripted by Rabbi Eliezer.  Not that they aren’t tragic, for this year they’ve been the most tragic deaths  imaginable:  A mother and a father both died on the very day their first child was born.  And while neither death was predictable, a second look will delineate certain patterns that made these deaths very Downton-like, emerging from an orderly universe where even the most random of endings can occur only when one’s most complicated life conflicts have been oh-so neatly resolved.

Both Lady Sybil and Cousin Matthew died only after uttering the final “I love yous” that so often in the real world are left unsaid.  They said them, and then some.  Matthew was a walking Hallmark commercial in recent weeks, waxing so poetic as to leave the otherwise sardonic Mary drained of all her bile.  The two marriages were at such blissful states that the only alternative to death would have been lives of saccharine boredom and pedestrian parenting.  It’s sad that boring, successful marriages have such a hard time making it on TV.

For both of the victims, all issues of class and money were neatly resolved pre-mortem.  Sybil’s ex-chauffer husband Tom was fully welcomed into the family and he was, at last, dressing the part; and Matthew’s grand modernization plan to keep Downton economically viable was finally accepted by his doubting father in law.  Matthew’s fertility was no longer in doubt, of course, and mercifully we only had to see Lady Mary deal with the indignities of pregnancy for one episode.  It would have been unseemly to see her beg Matthew for pickles or Chinese takeout.

When season four begins, the Downtonites, upstairs and down, will again be decked in black, as custom begs them to do.  The tears will be crowned in ritual and the suffering will give way to the basic survival instinct that has propelled the entire enterprise – theirs and ours: Things change, so we’d best change too, while clinging to traditions that strengthen us, family and friends who nurture us, and a steadfast belief (defying all visible evidence) that there is a guiding sense of order to it all.

And, next season, as soon as a relationship appears to have tied up into a neat, uncomplicated bow, with all words of love and forgiveness uttered as Rabbi Eliezer would advise, watch out!

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." His Substack column, One One Foot: A Rabbi's Journal, can be found at Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Cobie, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307