Posts Tagged 'Death'

Death and Taxes

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in a letter:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

I was thinking about this quote recently in as much as the current administration is testing the very permanence of our Constitution and our republic.

Death and tax hikes | Nevada Policy Research Institute

I was also thinking about in the context of Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion. There we discuss the obligation to give tithes, our form of taxes. And we read:

When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield—in the third year, the year of the tithe—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before the Lord your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments:I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done just as You commanded me. (Deuteronomy 26: 12-14)

It is curious. Why is it not enough to pay your taxes? You also need to make a public declaration.

In the Torah giving tithes is not just a civil obligation. Paying your taxes is a public and even a religious experience. While giving taxes might be inevitable, it is also an honor. We should proud of our ability to participate in a just society, support the needy, and the institutions of state.

When we think about taxes we should think of the words if President Kennedy. He said, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” It is all too clear that for our current President it is all about what the country can do for him. And it is of note that he has still yet to share his tax returns. It is clear that he has no honor or respect for anything other than himself, let alone religion. For Trump we might be able to add to Franklin’s adage on death and taxes. In the end it is certain that history will not be kind to him.

Good Life: Death and Chukkat

In Chukkat, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the bizarre rite of the para adumma– red heifer.  It was a cow brought to the priests as a sacrifice, and its ashes were used for the ritual purification of Ṭum’at HaMet (“the impurity of the dead”), that is, an Israelite who had come into contact with a corpse. It does seems strange that some how the ash of one dead animal would deal with their fear of having come into contact with a dead body. The notion of a para adumma seems out of step with our lives. How do we make sense of this in the 21st Century?

I was thinking about this question when reading Atul Gawande’s  Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. In his bestselling book, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Here he examines its ultimate limitations and failures – in his own practices as well as others’ – as life draws to a close. And he discovers how we can do better. He follows a hospice nurse on her rounds, a geriatrician in his clinic, and reformers turning nursing homes upside down. There he writes:

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

In today’s day we have removed death from our lives. Even doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients’ anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them. And we the families go along with all of it.

So while it is crazy to imagine how the para adumma removed the impurity of death from the Israelites lives, it seems even crazier that we have feebly tried to removed death itself from our modern lives. We might not find ourselves going to the Priest for a consult, but we should find people who show us how to have the hard conversations about death before it is too late. Gawande writes:

Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end.

 

A TED Prep for the High Holidays

Over Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we will get to recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a medieval a piyyutThere we read:

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree!”

It always seems rather graphic to imagine the various ways that people might die, but perhaps that is what makes this piyyut so memorable. There seems to be some significance to thinking about death in order to get the high of the High Holidays.  I was thinking about this when I saw recent TED talk. It is totally worth watching.

I think that Candy Chang summarized her talk and the High Holidays well in saying, “Preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do. Thinking about death clarifies your life.” I know that I will be thinking about what I would write on a wall in the next 10 days.  We know that ” Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree”, but it also seems that public art and sharing our inner most thoughts with others might also do the trick. Might we pursue ways of doing the same in our own communities( check out the website).


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