Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Yizkor Yom Kippur 5777 - Meditations on the Lifecyle of a Fruit Fly

To call it a plague would be unnecessarily biblical. But we’ve a minor outbreak of drosophila - fruit flies - at home.

Tiny things half the size of a sesame seed. Too small to buzz. They orbit flowers that arrived for Rosh Hashanah, hover around the compost and seem particularly attracted to toothpaste.
Once upon a time I studied a bit of genetics. Geneticists love drosophila for the brevity of their life cycle. Four days to pupate, two days to reach maturity, then they are ready to mate. Funny how things like the lifecycle of a fruit-fly can remain in the mind. Having mated, of course, the flies die. And it all feels so brief.

Mi Yichiye uMi Yamut - who shall live and who shall die.
Mi b’kitzo uMi lo b’kitzo - who in the fullness of days, and who not at the fullness of days.

And it all feels so brief.
A flash of a moment. We last longer than a fruit fly. But really, what are we capable of achieving? Even our very best efforts. Even the brightest of us. Life a vanishing dream - cchalom yauf.
Yom Kippur can do that to you. So raw an encounter with our mortality that it can become hard to see beyond our terminal state.

Actually Yom Kippur isn’t the worst of it. On the Shabbat of Succot we read the Book of Ecclesiastes; things get bleaker still.

Before the silver chord snaps and golden bowl crashes. The jar is shattered at the spring and the jug is smashed at the cistern. And the dust returns to the earth as it was.
Hevel hevelim amar kohelet - everything is vanity.

That’s an irony, I suppose. A book about the absolute futility of our attempts at immortality, written some three thousand years ago, is still re-read today. The book bears the name of its author Kohelet, and the author lives on through his work.
Despite its antiquity, it’s holding up pretty well.

I have observed, [says Kohelet,] that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the brave, nor is bread won by the wise, nor wealth by the intelligent, no favour by the learned. For the moment of death comes to us all. And no-one knows their time. As fishes are enmeshed in a fatal net and birds in a snare, so is humanity caught by death when it comes without warning.

Sartre would have been happy with that. Kohelet has survived; achieving, if not immortality, then surely a life beyond mortal grasp of its author. That’s a neat paradox. The bleakest, most honest encounter the Bible gives us with the mortal condition reads today as possibly the most contemporary book in the entire Torah.

Here’s another irony. On a day for considering our mortal predicament here we are at, possibly, the most cherished moment in the day, remembering those loved and lost. Giving them, through our memories, a life beyond the grave. The day on which we consider the brevity and fragility of our existence is the day on which those we have loved and lost live on in our reflections on them.

The neuroscientist David Eagleman imagined forty different versions of the afterlife. It’s a great book, called Sum. In one of his essays he imagines an afterlife where the dead gather to live on only as long as there are those who remember them, only to experience a second sort-of-death when there remains no-one who tells stories of their life. He’s right that there is a kind of immortality in stories told about us, even after we have gone.

Woody Allen once said he didn’t want to achieve immortality through his work. He wanted to achieve immortality through not dying. But I’m not sure it works like that. I’m back engaging with Yuval Noah Harari and his new book Homo Deus. This time approvingly.

Harari notes we aren’t dying like we used to. We used to die of pestilence or poverty or violence. Now we get propped up by medicine and prosperity and, as a race, we aren’t even as violent as we used to be. We are living longer and pushing harder at the edges of science to live longer still. We are heading for not quite immortality, but, says Harari, a-mortality.

Future superhumans could still die in some war or accident and nothing could bring them back, but unlike us mere mortals, their life would have no expiry date. So long as no bomb shreds them to pieces or no truck runs them over, they could go on indefinitely.

And here comes a sensational observation.

Which will probably make them the most anxious people in history. We mortals daily take chances with our lives because we know they are going to end anyhow. So we go on treks in the Himalayas, swim in the sea and do many other dangerous things like crossing the road or eating out. But if you believe you can live for ever, you would be crazy to gamble on infinity like that.

His point is that living longer isn’t the same as living better. In fact one might be at odds with the other. Last night I suggested that if we live for tomorrow we are destined never to reach it. Today I’m suggesting that if we worry too much about living for ever we can end up not living at all.

We are mortal.
So we should get on with living.
None of us know how much longer we have.

In the unataneh tokef we read of books, one book for each of us written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed today - v’chotem yad kol adam bo - with the signature of each person in them. We are all writing books. You, me, each of us. And each of our books contains an image of our life. Our values, our efforts, our kindnesses.

And those of us here remembering today, at Yizkor, we are leafing through the books left for us. bo.

We are all writing books and reading books.
So here are a couple of ideas about the books we leave for others to read.

First, make it good.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great American Rabbi of the last century, warned, that the greatest problem is not how to continue, but how to exalt our existence. The cry for a life beyond the grave [he taught] is presumptuous if there is no cry for a great life prior to the grave.’ [2]
What exactly do we want to achieve in this world? We are all too busy running to keep abreast of the speed with which this world turns to pause to think about what we are actually running for.

This, Heschel wrote, is the meaning of existence, ‘to reconcile liberty with service, the passing with the lasting, to weave the threads of temporality into the fabric of eternity.’
Or if that sounds a little too high-falutin, in an interview given just months before he passed away in 1972 Heschel suggested this,

‘remember there is meaning beyond absurdity. Be sure that every little deed counts, that every little word has power and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all frustrations and disappointments.’
‘Above all,’ he continued, ‘remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art. You are not a machine. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

For each of us, with our different lives at our different points in life, that answer will look different.
But how much more glorious would all our lives be if we constructed them as works of art. Not just factors off a production line.

My favourite moment in the story of Ester comes when Mordechai attempts to get Ester to protest the upcoming destruction of the Jewish people. She’s declines the invitation, lacking courage, or perhaps distracted by the trinkets of court life. Mordechai is having none of it.

Mi yodeah im leayt hazot higat lemalchut.
Who knows, perhaps it was for this moment that you became queen?

Who knows, perhaps it was for this moment that you are here.
It’s so precious this life. And the brevity of its existence enhances its beauty. If we knew we would life forever it wouldn’t be so important. Here, today, in touch with our mortality because of the themes of this day, and reminded of our own mortality by this service of Yizkor, we have a chance to pledge our lives to the creation of something beautiful, powerful, meaningful.
Something that justifies our existence and allows the flicker of our flame to burn beyond our years.

So that’s the first piece of advice - live bigger. Live for a purpose. Make your life a work of art.

The second piece of advice is - record it, write it down.

Theodore Zeldin, the academic whose responsible for the idea about Forts and Ports so many of you have responded to since Rosh Hashanah has an obsession for autobiographies. He loves them. Each chapter of his book, The Hidden Pleasures of Life, engages with a different one; Lao She the nineteenth century Chinese humourist, the seventeenth century Earl of Shaftesbury, Haimabati Sen, born in Bengal in 1866. He loves autobiographies because they contain the insights into otherness he feels is so vital for human progress. Write it down, he urges, record stuff. Leave a trace.

There is a lovely tradition of the Tzavah - the ethical will. Through Jewish history the great, and the not so great, have passed on their ethical inheritance in documents, many of which have survived to this day. Judah Ibn Tibbon died in France in 1180 leaving this instruction;

Examine your Hebrew books at every New Moon, the Arabic volumes once in two months, and the bound codices once every quarter.  Arrange your library in fair orders so as to avoid wearying yourself in searching for the book you need. A good plan would be to set in each compartment a written list of the books therein contained. If, then, you are looking for a book, you can see from the list the exact shelf it occupies without disarranging all the books in the search for one. [3]

This is al, of course, pre-Google. But I wonder if the good Reb Judah spotted something in his son that led him to pass on this rather different instruction.

My son! I command your to honour your wife to your utmost capacity. Remember her assiduous attendance on you in your illness, though she had been brought up in elegance and luxury. If you would acquire my love, honour her with all your might; do not exercise too severe an authority over her; our Sages [Gittin 6b] expressly warned men against this. If you give reprove, it is enough if your displeasure is visible in your look; let it not be vented in actual rage.

Most of us are blessed with material goods to pass on to our inheritors. But what about the non-tangible gifts; the really important gifts. Write them down.

Leave a record for those who come later. It needn’t, I suppose, be a physical book, but leave a record.

The pre-funeral visit comes with the job. And I’m always fascinated by how a family reflect, admittedly at such a raw moment. Sometimes I arrive and the photos are out and the letters. And there are stories being told and retold. And sometimes there are emotions, but only scarce specific recollections. If we want to be remembered we should make sure there is something to remember us by. Write it down.

It’s a way to live beyond our years.

Live well and leave a record.
And the proof that it works is our very experience here at Yizkor. Remembering, recalling, giving life to those who have passed and celebrating their achievement not necessarily in the public realm, but in the personal, private realms in which their lives have touched and lifted us.

Live well and leave a record.
And in the fullness of time, we pray, there will be those who will remember us.

Hatimah Tovah


[1] Haimabati
[2] Moral Grandeur p.378
[3] http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/jewish-wills.asp

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