My sister, Laura, wrote to tell me she and her husband, Anton, had just watched the last episode of the Netflix TV series, Godless.   In the final scene an unknown pastor shows up at the tail end of a funeral and reads a poem. He brings everyone to tears.  Here is a clip of that scene.

Godless-Final Episode

Godless Final Episode

Laura was so moved by the poem, she looked it up on line and sent it to me.

By Rabbi Chaim Stern

‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.

A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

to be,
And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing
to love.

For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.

To remember this brings painful joy.

‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.

Although the show and many others mistakenly attribute the poem to Yehuda Halevi (d.1141), it was in fact written in the 20th century by Rabbi Chaim Stern (1930-2001) of Brooklyn, New York.

Rabbi Chaim Stern

A thing for fools, this.”   Life.

One could easily conclude life is just one elaborate setup for suffering. From the moment we are born, and bond with our parents, grandparents, our siblings; build close friendships; fall in love; marry; have children of our own—we are destined to endure the pain of losing someone we love—over and over again.

And yet, we choose life. Our daughter suffered mightily the loss of her 24-year old brother and witnessed the devastating body blows thrown at her parents. Two years later she and her husband brought new life into this world, followed by another two years after that.

Why do conscious, highly intelligent beings like us embark on this fool’s errand? Is it not insanity to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result?

This time, we’ll bring a new life into this world that death will not touch.’ 

So, what is it that makes us choose life?

Rabbi Stern teaches us it’s love.   ‘a holy thing to love.’

Love, life, death and love. The circle of our essence—our being—does not change.

Rabbi Stern’s closing lines are profound truth and resonate deeply:

It is a human thing, love
a holy thing, to love what death has touched.

Love survives death. Death does not touch love—erase love. Death takes the body—the shell. Love is eternal.

We know this at our deepest core. It is hard-wired into our souls.

But, what does that mean? Eternal love.   Rabbi Rick Rheins of Denver, a student and protégé of the poet, provided some wonderful insight into Rabbi Stern’s poem and the Jewish practices and rituals performed by those who have suffered the loss of someone they deeply love.

[These] are not magical incantations. Rather, they are links that connect us to spiritual dimensions that we can sense but not define. We can sense, we can almost feel the presence of our loved ones, bound gently with us. For some, acknowledging that on-going connection may be, at first or even for a while, upsetting, even painful. They avoid the rituals. They miss the Yahrzeits and the Yizkors. Kaddish is not said. The candles are not lit. The gravesites are not visited. As if hiding from the painful memory of loss will protect them.

Let us embrace that love which is not severed by death. Painful, fearful, a thing for fools? Perhaps. Perhaps for some, at first. But it is also a holy thing. And the rituals…all help us to remember and honor that legacy. Those rituals help us maintain and even strengthen the connections that bind us to those who have passed and those yet to be. These prayers connect heaven to our world. These prayers strengthen the spiritual essence of those who have passed. These prayers and these rituals thereby contribute to the gift of heavenly peace. [From Ad Meah v’Essrim; To 120. And Then What?  Rabbi Rich Rheins, Yom Kippur Yizkor 5778]

“links that connect us to spiritual dimensions that we can sense but not define…and bind us to those who have passed and those yet to be”

We choose life—we choose to bring new life into this world—we choose to commit ourselves to and deeply love someone—because of a deep knowing, a trust, that we will always remain connected. Love is the unbreakable tether, the anchor, for our souls between the “here” and “there.”

We never really lose the ones we love.   We can always find them, and they find us. [Suffering Is the Only Honest Work]

It is this knowing that emboldens us to overcome any fear of life’s finite certainty.

To love deeply is holy. Holy. Love keeps us connected to God, Yahweh, the Creator of all Beings, and all of his creations—all of those we have loved and those yet to be.   That’s heavy stuff. To think—to know—we are connected to and love those who have not yet been born. Need to muse about that some more!

Maybe that’s why we’re here on this planet whose very existence seemingly defies all odds. Could it be our purpose—our divine work—is to love, no matter how painful the loss of a loved one will be, and send that love out into the heavens?

A holy thing to love.  


Thank you, Laura, dearest sister, for sharing Rabbi Stern’s beautiful poem with us.


8 responses to “‘TIS A FEARFUL THING”

  1. Steve says:

    This is a really clear analysis of such a beautiful poem. Coming from a large Irish family this poem by Rabbi Stern really touches my soul. After much personal family loss and loss of beautiful friendships along life’s path, my heart aches for calm and my soul aches for soothing balm. Life is such a mystery yet love is all conquering. I dare say love is truly our only dependable asset on earth. An asset that lessens the misery of frequent and painful contemplation regarding memories of loved ones who have left us.

    Thank you Rabbi Stern for a very touching and most beautiful summary of the importance of love in the cycle of life and it’s renewal by those yet to be!

  2. Rev. Thomas Lee, Sr. says:

    I am a husband, father of four, and grandfather of six. Facing surgeries to repair two aneurysms and after that, treatment for reoccurring cancer. Many times I have searched for words to leave behind for my loved ones that might serve to make some sense of the life they are left to live without me. This deeply wonderful poem and commentary here brings that search to an end. Thank you!

  3. Casey Gauntt says:

    Thank you, Reverend. Blessings to you and your family. Casey

  4. Maureen sloan says:

    Thank you for this page. I did see Godless, but failed to fully appreciate the closing poem until my sister referred to it. I have had a few very close losses and I know the deep grieving. This will surely be discussed and appreciated at my bereavement support group.

    • Casey Gauntt says:

      Maureen-thank-you for reaching out. It was MY sister who pointed that poem out to me. Very powerful. Warm regards Casey

  5. Elaine says:

    This poem helped me with the profound sense of loss when I lost my beautiful, husband of 51 plus years.

  6. Thank you Casey and your sister Laura for listing out Rabbi Stern’s poem and your discussion of it and life-death…the fool’s errand to go on and why we should somehow do that for the loved one(s) we lost. I am a bereaved father (my son, Blake). I just finished seeing Godless final town scene in their finale last night. That poem the pastor read to them I felt had to be a poem some incredible author had written and I had to find it. Thank you both.

    • Casey Gauntt says:

      Edwin, thank-you for reaching out. I’m very sorry for the transition of your son, Blake. We too found comfort in Rabbi Stern’s wise words. Blessings and continued healing

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Write Me Something Beautiful Authors - Casey and Jimmy Gauntt

Casey Gauntt

is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.

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Jimmy Gauntt

was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002.   A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English.  Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.

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