Dealing with Damocles

I few days before Passover I got a call from Yadid in the middle of the day. I was in the middle of a meeting, but it felt ominous so I picked it up. He was in a car accident. He hydroplaned on the Cross Country driving home from his last final. I had a pit in my stomach at the thought of his being hurt and I felt like I might vomit. He was worried to tell me because he totaled the car. I was thrilled to hear that he walked away from it unharmed and no one else was hurt. As they say, any issue that you can fix with money is not really broken. But the feeling in the my stomach lingered.

Clearly the Taanit Bechorot, the Fast of the Firstborn, and the 10th plague at the Seder sat differently for Yadid and us this year. And as nice and sumptuous as the Sederim were I have to admit that his near death experience put a pall on the holiday.

I was reminded of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Don’t get me wrong, my brother’s corn beef was delicious, but I was much more aware of the fragility of life. Yadid’s experience put me in touch with the miracle of being alive. And even if we think we are free, life might be held together by a horse’s hair.

With the close of Passover I thought I could get past it, but then we had Yom HaShoah yesterday. If I felt so horrible about possibly losing my son, how does one begin to articulate the loss of 6 millions sons and daughters?

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot, this week’s Torah portion. Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

What does life look like after death? After the death of his sons Aaron is instructed how he should show up for work. After something cataclysmic, how or can things go back to normal?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose to live a life with meaning. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. To go back to the way things were before we saw the sword dangling overhead. One of Finland’s most popular writers V.A. Koskeniemi wrote:

Man <sic> is not free in life unless he is free from the fear of death too. We can certainly not be rid of it by not thinking of death, but on the contrary only by becoming accustomed to it, by learning to be at home in it. Thus we snatch from it its greatest advantage over us, its strangeness. In preparing ourselves for death, we prepare ourselves for freedom, and only he who has learned to die is free from life’s slavery…

There is no turning back. There is only the freedom to cherish every moment we have, the people in our lives, the work we get to do, and the meaning we get to make.

-related piece The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today

0 Responses to “Dealing with Damocles”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 231 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: