“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Other traditions celebrate death. The ancient Egyptians used their priests to prepare bodies for deaths, building the elaborate pyramids as ancient tombs. Creating mummies to preserve dead bodies was a science for the Egyptians. Among the Greeks, Socrates willingly drank the hemlock to enter what he considered a better world. In contrast, Jewish tradition does not even allow its priests (kohanim) to go into a cemetery.
One of the central features of Judaism is this absolute separation between life and death. Jewish tradition forbids the eating of milk and meat together, or even eating them off the same dishes. Milk is a symbol of life, it gives life to the baby animal. Meat is the symbol of death, the flesh of an animal properly slaughtered. The two realms should never meet.
Our thoughts are on the High Holidays which begins in days. We speak about sefer hayim, the Book of Life. We ask God to write us in the Book of Life. Our tradition holds that God has a Book of Life and on Rosh Hashana our fate is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. But proper behavior can reverse the severe decree. Over and over as we pray on these holidays, we declare that God is a God of Life. How do we understand these ideas?
Death is the fate of everything that exists. All living things will one day die, the earth and the sun will die. The universe itself will die one day. Scientists have a name for it – entropy. Entropy is the natural tendency of all things to wear down, become more chaotic, to eventually break down. When your cell phone or your car begins to break down and stop working, that is entropy. When our bodies begin to break down, no matter how healthy we eat or how often we go to the gym, that is entropy. As W.B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem The Second Coming, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Entropy is the way of the world.
But there is an anti-entropy force at work in the world. It is the force that goes from chaos to order, from death to life. It is the force in the universe that went from hydrogen atoms to carbon atoms, then to organic molecules, then to proteins and D.N.A., then to metabolism and to life. We live in a world where there is a force for life at work. Evolution points towards the fact that over time higher and higher, more complex forms of life develop. Evolution is the greatest proof for the existence of God. Whenever entropy is overcome, when chaos moves towards order and randomness moves towards organization, that is the hand of God at work in the world. That is the God of life, as God created the universe from Tohu VaVohu, chaos.
A major theme of the High Holidays is that we can choose between death and life, between bringing more chaos and entropy into the world, or bringing order and enhancing life. God is a God of life. We humans are called to reaffirm life. Whenever we work to reaffirm life, we become God’s partners in the creation of this world.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman