“He cuts off the breath of princes.” (76:13)
We all die, rich and poor, celebrity and unknown, powerful and vulnerable. This is true in a narrow sense, that every human being is mortal with a limited life span. However, this is not to say that we all live out our allotted years. Wealth buys better health care, which extends life. People living in poverty often eat a less healthy diet, lack easy access to basic preventative health care, live in a less healthy environment, and cannot afford life-extending medications and treatment for serious illness. If we achieve a world in which paupers and princes both live out their maximum genetically determined life span, we will see the coming of the Messiah.
“The wise die; together [with] the foolish and ignorant, they perish.” (49:11)
Human beings cannot think or buy their way out of death. Our limited lifespan, which could be interrupted at any moment with illness or accident or sudden trauma, is our soul’s only chance at bodily existence*. This can be terrifying, energizing, or both. Some people spend a wasted part of their lives focused on fearing and fighting death. Some people frantically chase possessions or pleasurable experiences. In both cases, because of their fear and negative obsession, they miss opportunities to do some real good. Let your mortality energize you in pursuit of building a better world for others.
*For those who believe in reincarnation, you of course get multiple chances to live and die.
“… to cut off their memory from the earth. (34:17)
When I get to the end of my life, I’d like to have made a difference. I know it’s not reasonable to think that 50 years after my death that I will be remembered as anything other than a name, and after another 50 years, probably not even that, so my goal is more modest. I’d like to be remembered for something for a generation or two. Having children is one way to guarantee that your memory will not be immediately cut off. Having the means to leave a financial legacy such as a named endowment fund or family foundation is another way. If it is within your power, how to you want to be remembered?
“Lest I sleep death.” (13:4)
One should never tell a young child that someone who has died is just sleeping, unless you want to teach the child to fear bedtime. However, sleep is 1/60th of death, taught the rabbis of the Talmud (Berakhot 57b). In our unconscious state, we are closer to the world of souls. Not every dream is a message from beyond, but when the veil of our ego is lifted, we expand our ability to realize things about ourselves. Whether this expanded awareness comes from within our minds or from an outside agent is less important than our openness to hearing the message.
Adonai, what is a human being that You should care about him, a mortal being, that You should think of him? A human being is like a breath, whose days are like a passing shadow. (144:3-4)
Every living thing has value, not matter how long or how short the life span. From a eternal God-perspective, their is no difference between a fertilized embryo which lives a matter of weeks or months and a person who lives a full life. God’s quality of caring and love applies equally to the child who died in utero and the elder who lives 102 years surrounded by three or four generations of descendants.
One way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to say that it does not ignore the embryonic life simply because it is unborn but neither does it give more weight to the woman simply because she is older. Rather, it treats the two of them as equally human, but if the embryonic life is threatening the life or health of the mother, then we take the embryonic life to spare the mother’s life. In the same way, if a mugger showed a gun and declared, “Your money or your life,” the potential victim or a bystander would be justified in taking the life of the mugger.
Another way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to see the baby as a dependent life akin to a limb of the mother. Just as one may remove a person’s limb when it threatens the health of the body, one may remove an child in utero if it threatens the mother. No matter which way one analyzes the ethics of abortion in Jewish law, midrash infuses the embryonic life with a soul. In other words, an abortion is not the killing of a soul-less child, but rather the necessary killing of a soul who is endangering another’s life.
While I have not seen a midrash which addresses what happens to the soul of a child which did not get the chance to be born, I imagine, because I believe that God cares about every soul, that the unborn soul whose life was cut off goes back to the Divine storehouse of souls. Every soul deserves a chance to live a life. A soul whose life was cut short before it could experience the trials and triumphs of a human life ought to be given a second chance to be born.