‘TIS A FEARFUL THING
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.
Laura was so moved by the poem, she looked it up on line and sent it to me.
‘TIS A FEARFUL THING
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 –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
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.
“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.