Why I Think About Death a Lot


A friend asked me recently why I was obsessed with death. I laughed at the time but I wasn’t embarrassed. She’s right. It goes way back, I’m sure, but at this point, I’m not “obsessed.” I do try to be mindful that I really am on “a mission from G-d,” and that one of two things will inevitably happen: A) gulp, my mission will end, at which time I want my soul to be pleased when it gives its accounting, or, B) I will merit to actually witness the Redemption, at which time I also want to feel joyful about my efforts. (The whole world will feel joyful, but those who put in greater effort will appreciate the outcome that much more.)

In either case, it’s good to be prepared. Of course, growing up thinking like an American, nobody talked about death (or even life); my “obsession” was my attempt to get comfortable with the elephant in everyone’s room. Now, as an observant Jew, thinking about death serves me well, at least to the degree that it reminds me to do what G-d wants while I still can. I like when I remember that life is just one stop of the journey. I wish I remembered it more.

Other American ways of thinking were harder to change. I thought freedom of religion meant freedom from religion, so I had trouble getting it through my head that I really had stumbled on the Truth. I was plagued by doubt for years–why me, why not everyone around me, why now, what about all the non-Jews. But, now, I’m over it. (Some might say I’m too over it, but they probably aren’t reading this.)

Now I know that the concept of, “One G-d, One Torah, One Jewish People” is the underlying truth of the world. When Moshiach comes–which is likely to be soon, according to mystics, scholars and the Torah itself– the whole world will know as well.

With the United States signing an accord with Iran this week, our collective effort to hasten his arrival is surely the Jewish people’s–indeed the world’s– best case scenario.

In a mass email, our local Federation’s Community Resource Council offered the following assessment:

We hope that the agreement announced today in Vienna successfully curtails the Iranian threat and that this agreement will promote peace in the Middle East.

At the same time, we have cause to be wary. Iran has continually violated the human rights of its people, funded terrorist organizations, threatened annihilation of Israel, worked to destabilize neighboring countries in the region, supported Holocaust denial, and previously created a covert nuclear weapons program. Just this past week, hard-liners in Iran staged a rally in which thousands marched through the streets of Tehran chanting, “Down with America” and “Death to Israel.” Iran is not a country that has earned our trust.

Here’s what I know (thinking like an American): Congress has sixty days to review this agreement, and the Council urges the Pittsburgh Jewish community “to remain involved in this Congressional review by expressing their opinions to their elected representatives.”

Here’s what I also know (thinking like a Jew): There’s a physical world and a spiritual world, and they’re connected. As His “Chosen People,” we were part of G-d’s plan even before the creation of the world. (Stay with me, even if your American thinking self doesn’t quite compute “chosen people” or “creation”–for now, let’s acknowledge that our relationship with Him has been complicated, but He’s the reason why we’re still here today.)

To think like an American is to rely on military and political strength to defeat our opponents. To think like a Jew is to incorporate spiritual strength as well, to know that the fate of the Jewish nation, indeed the world, is ultimately determined by G-d alone.

It’s not enough to petition our Congressman; we Jews also need to petition our Creator. If we acknowledge G-d even in a small way–through prayer, giving tzedaka, lighting Shabbos candles, acts of kindness, to name a few– our one mitzvah could arouse G-d’s mercy and tip the scale in favor of the Jewish nation. And when it’s good for the Jews, it’s good for the world.

The situation is dire, a “make it or break it” moment for me as a Jew, no matter which option I ultimately face. If it’s option A, I want my soul to be grateful for my efforts to effect a good outcome at this critical time in Jewish history. But I prefer to ponder that world events are really option B continuing to unfold, despite the darkness that’s apparent now.  The truth I’m sure of points to this. Would G-d choose the Jewish nation in order for us to merely “survive,” so we could face one threat of extinction, then the next one, and the next one, and the one after that? Of course not. He chose us to fulfill a mission in this world and when it’s over, it’s over. G-d’s promise of the Redemption is as true as Torah itself.

It’s time we stop kicking the Jewish survival can down the road. To truly win, we need to think like Jews and remember where our salvation comes from, where it has always come from. To truly win, we need to turn to G-d and plead with Him to send Moshiach immediately.

About the Author
Lieba Rudolph, her husband, Zev, and their young family returned to observant Jewish life when they were both over thirty. Now, after spending equal time in both worlds, she shares the joys and challenges of her journey, answering everyone's unasked question: why would anyone normal want to become religious?
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