Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio | Rabbi
My grandparents taught me about death, each in their own way. My paternal grandfather died before I was born, I never met him but he was present, even though physically he was not there. I carry his name and so have always felt an affinity to him through our connection. From him I learned that even though a physical body may not be present, a person lives in many different ways.
My maternal grandfather would take us to the cemetery for picnics to visit our relatives. As a result I did not fear death, it was a natural, organic part of life.
The Torah describes death as being "gathered to our ancestors" and that always rang true for me as I visited and connected with my ancestors.
My paternal grandmother was the first person I saw who had died. When she spoke about death she always said “when I close my eyes.” Superstitious, she never used the word die, but as a result I have been left with the beautiful image of death being the moment we close our eyes and do not wake again. I was not there when she died but I imagine it to be as she described: a gentle closing of her eyes and drifting off to the next world. Jewish tradition invites us to say a prayer each morning thanking God for the return of our souls. Sleep is like a mini death, our souls leave and return in the morning. So death as an everlasting sleep, a closing of our eyes, always held meaning for me.
The Torah speaks of Moses’ death as a "kiss from God", where God drew the breath gently from his body with a kiss. I have always liked that image and felt that even though it may not be God, it might be the angel of death, that death is the drawing of breath from our bodies, a separation of the body and soul.
Since that day I have seen many people who have died, I have been there at the moment of death, as breathing stops and the soul separates from the body. I believe we are more than a physical being, we are body and soul and death is the end of the body, not the soul. After my grandmother died I still felt her presence, once I even thought I saw her. Whether I did or didn’t I don’t know but she taught me through her life and her death that there is a part of us, once we close our eyes, that leaves the physical and lives on as the spirit.
And finally, my maternal grandmother. She was 96 when she died and for the years before that she said she was ready, that she had lived a full, good life and it was time, it was ok. Her wish was not granted, she lived longer and it was not always easy or pleasant, the person we knew had retreated to a place in her mind which we could no longer reach, but she taught me that sometimes death is ok.
There can be a time to live and a time to die and to know when that time might be, we need to turn towards life, not to focus on death. Instead, live our best life, to appreciate what we have and give to others.
There is a question posed in one of our prayer books: if we could end death but it would mean there would be no more new life, would we do it? My grandparents taught me that the answer would be no. There is a place for death, it is not the end, it is a gathering to our ancestors, a separation of body and soul, a closing of our eyes, a kiss from God.
- Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio
Editor's note: Rabbi Ninio was ordained in 1998 and is the seventh Australian-born progressive rabbi and the third Australian-born female rabbi. She has served at Emanuel Synagogue (Woollahra, Sydney) since 1998 and is the congregation’s first female rabbi.
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- Well said, Rabbi Ninio - Pam Cossey (Facebook)
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