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Bound in the bond of life - A sermon for Rosh Hashanah Evening

10/03/2023 10:50:51 AM

Oct3

Bruce Alpert

תנצב"ה isn't a Hebrew word.  Yet walk among the old gravestones in a Jewish cemetery and you will find its letters -  ת-נ-צ-ב-ה- inscribed on almost all of them.

תנצב"ה is an acronym.  It stands for תהי נגשו צרורה בצרור החיים- May his soul (or her soul) be bound in the bond of life.  

What is the bond of life?  Where does it exist?  How does it manifest itself?  And what do we mean when we ask that a lost, loved one’s soul be bound to it?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately; probably because I turned sixty in January.  I seem to be telling that to everyone I meet these days, perhaps in the hope that doing so will help me to believe it.  The project should be working because so far absolutely no one has told me I don’t look my age.  

For me, the hard thing about turning sixty is that I clearly remember turning thirty.  And while that memory does not seem like just yesterday, it does seem likely that the path ahead is shorter than the path back to that age.  Thus my curiosity as to what we mean by the bond of life.

Clues to the meaning of such terms are often found by looking to their origin.  The phrase bond of life appears early in the story of David.  Seeking to placate his anger against her foolish first husband who spurns his request for aid, Abigail says to David “A man rose to pursue you and seek your life; may my master’s soul be bound up in the bond of life with the Lord your God, and may He cast away the soul of your enemies in the hollow of a slingshot.”  (1 Samuel 25:29)  Contextually, the verse implies to me that the bond of life is some sort of divine protection against one’s enemies.  But our rabbis view it as a prophecy that there exists what they refer to as   עולם הבא- the world to come.  

This is perhaps best explained by the Spanish born, 12th century philosopher Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known alternately by his own acronym Rambam, or by the Greek influenced translation Maimonides.  Maimonides is one of the giants of Jewish history, having composed one of its greatest philosophical texts, The Guide for the Perplexed, and one of its greatest law codes, the Mishneh Torah.  In that text’s section on repentance, Maimonides interprets the phrase “bond of life” to refer to that part of the soul that has no need of a body; that part of us we associate with our intellect; the part that can grasp abstract concepts like good and evil.  It is this part of our soul - the part that has no bodily needs - that lives on in עולם הבא, the world to come.  Similarly, Maimonides teaches us that when the Torah speaks of an evil doer being cut off from his people, it is also referring to this part of his soul.  Thus to be cut off is to be cut off from the eternal life and eternal goodness that is עולם הבא.  

Like I imagine everyone, I am enchanted by the idea of a world to come - of a place beyond this life where, in the words of our ancient rabbis, “the righteous … delight in the radiance of the Divine Presence.”  On my better days, I like to think that a merciful God will forgive my many faults and sins and count me as among those worthy of a glimpse of that eternal light.  But to be honest with you all, such belief does not come easily to me.  I hope it’s true.  I pray it’s true.  But a big part of me is looking for a rather more modest understanding of the phrase “bond of life.”

To that end, I want to share with you some insights I gained from a wonderful, brief book entitled Reading Ruth.  The book was written by the noted Jewish ethicist Dr. Leon Kass and his granddaughter, Hannah Mandelbaum.  The origins of the book are worth mentioning.  In 2015, Dr. Kass lost his wife Amy of more than fifty years.  As a way of sharing their grief, Hannah asked her grandfather if he would like to read something with her.  Together, one or two verses at a time, they read through the Book of Ruth, trying to explore the nuances of this seemingly simple story of death and rebirth.  Reading Ruth is an account of all that they learned.

For those of you needing a reminder of its basic plot, the Book of Ruth tells the story of the family of one Elimelech who moves from Bethlehem to the country of Moab because of a famine.  There his two sons take Moabite wives, but there both he and they die, leaving no children.  Elimelech’s widow Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and at first, her two widowed daughters-in-law follow her.  But Naomi tells them to turn back to their own people and one of them, Orpah, does just that.  But the other, Ruth, insists she will follow Naomi.  When the two arrive back in Bethlehem, circumstances bring Ruth to the attention of Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of the late Elimelich.  Eventually Ruth marries Boaz and together they have a son who will be the grandfather of King David. 

By far the most famous, and perhaps the most moving part of this story is Ruth’s plea to her mother-in-law to permit her to follow her back to Bethlehem.  “Do not urge me to leave you,” she tells Naomi,
to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.

This speech, Kass and Mandelbaum note, is essentially an act of betrothal.  Ruth is, in effect, marrying herself to Naomi.  It is a moving, heartfelt act of devotion that wins our sympathy for Ruth.

But, as Kass and Mandelbaum also point out, it doesn't win her mother-in-law's sympathy.  Rather, the text notes that when Naomi saw how determined Ruth was to go with her, she stopped speaking with her.

For Kass and Mandelbaum, Naomi's answer to Ruth's act of devotion is to maneuver her in such a way that Boaz will marry her and give her a child.  It isn’t that devotional commitments like the one Ruth is making to Naomi aren’t honored.  Indeed, Ruth is honored and respected by Boaz for such kindness.  But such acts are no substitute for passing on and even growing a culture.   And for that you need children.  This is the way of Israel: a way that places the family at its center because it sees in the family the means of growth and preservation of the values that are at its core.  In Israel, marriage is known as kiddushin - holiness itself.  And the bearing of children is an obligation because through them one’s name, one’s culture, one’s ideals are carried on from generation to generation.

I must offer an admission here.  I have often heard it said - and indeed I too have often said - that Judaism is a religion of life.  By that I have meant that Judaism honors all life, and treats human life in particular as sacred as we are created in God’s image.  I have also meant that Judaism’s focus is on what we do with our lives, not what we will do in some future life.  But when I have spoken of Judaism as a religion of life, I have not thought of something much more simple, much more fundamental.  Judaism is a religion of life because it is a religion about the perpetuation of life.  פרו ורבו ומלאו את־הארץ - be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth is the first command given to us.  God looks at a world filled with life that He created and sees that it is good and He wants it to go on and to grow.  And that too is what we mean when we say that Judaism is a religion of life.

Kass and Mandelbaum draw the stark contrast between this Jewish way of life and the alternatives that surround it.  In Egypt - the country out of which Israel emerged - the supreme value is bodily immortality through mummification and magic, rather than cultural transmission or growth.  In Canaan - the land promised to Abraham and his descendants - the practice of child sacrifice highlights that culture’s disregard for life even as it practices and celebrates every possible form of sexual behavior - many of which are functionally sterile.  

Kass and Mandelbaum go on to contrast Israel’s ways with those of the ancient Greeks who saw war and politics as “the fields of glory and honor” and who elevated all forms of male bonding over “marriage and the love of man for woman.”  Even with the early Christians, they argue, “parochial attachments to one’s kith and kin were regarded as obstacles to the duty of universal love,” which saw its ideal expression in priestly celibacy.  They reference the Gospel of Matthew which quotes Jesus as saying “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Israel, they argue, is like none of these cultures.  In Israel life is the ultimate value because life has the power to preserve, the power to grow, and even the power to redeem.  Nothing illustrates this better than the union of Ruth and Boaz.  Ruth is a Moabite - a descendent of the incest between Abraham’s nephew Lot and his daughter.  Boaz traces his ancestry to the incestuous relationship between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar.  And yet, through their union, David - Israel’s greatest king - will be born.  

Perhaps this is what we mean by that enigmatic phrase, the bond of life.  Perhaps it refers not to the promise of a world to come, but rather the promise of growth and preservation and redemption that life always holds out to us.  Such a meaning might not offer the same personal solace as the belief in a life after death, but it does offer us the hope that our lives can continue to matter even after they have ended.

In that regard, I recently heard a story about that 12th century rabbi I mentioned earlier.  It seems that Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik - one of the foremost rabbis of the 20th century and who was known to his many students simply as the Rav - was once approached to provide some reflections on the 750th yahrtzeit of Maimonides.  The Rav reportedly responded “this is the first time I am hearing that Maimonides is not alive.”

Think about it, if you will.  It is now more than 800 years since Maimonides died.  I have no way of proving this, but I feel certain I can say to you that in all that time, not a day has gone by - probably not an hour, and perhaps not even a minute - when his name hasn’t been on someone’s lips.  Is there not, then, a real sense in which he is indeed alive and among us?

Maimonides, I feel sure, will continue to be remembered, long after each of us is forgotten.  But in the Ten Commandments, God tells us that while He will visit the guilt of those who reject Him to the third and fourth generation, He will show kindness to those who love Him even to the thousandth generation.  The message I take from this is that memory is as frail as the human mind.  For all but a handful in any generation, our names are destined to be lost to the passage of time.  But not so our kindness.  That will live on so long as there is one to receive it.

What is the bond of life?  Where does it exist, and how will it manifest itself?  Perhaps the righteous among us will find it in the world to come where they will bask in God’s eternal radiance.  But perhaps we are already living in its embrace.  Perhaps our lives are the reward for the untold and long forgotten acts of distant ancestors whose kindness, sacrifice, faith, and love even now sustain this world of ours.  Perhaps even now they live silently, anonymously within us, pushing us to use our lives to strengthen this bond, until we are privileged to bond with them in the lives of some future generation.

Wed, April 17 2024 9 Nisan 5784