Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down
Twice recently he said to me, "We all have to die sometime."
We talked in that venue dedicated to the proposition that if you come here often enough you can push that eventuality (dying sometime) down the road a few years: the aquatics center with its exercise room where I ride my bike to nowhere. My friend in sweat is younger and much, much bigger than me. More noteworthy, he is Swedish-American, studied at the University of Tubingen with Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), and features himself, in person if not on his business card, as, among several vocations, a painter. Not housepainter, painter of religious symbols. Think Orthodox icons. He is also, and not so incidentally, a rabbi.
And a source of arcane information about the ups and downs of blood sugar levels. As we marinated in a hot tub at 102 degrees, he pronounced a benediction on the immediate enterprise with the information that ten minutes in the hot tub does more to lower blood sugar than an hour of exercise. He should know, he has diabetes, a not uncommon malady among people of his ethnicity and girth.
That and his rabbinic wisdom probably inform his iteration of the inescapability of death.
I would not accuse him of being morbid. He is, in fact, full of life. He loves his pasta and his Italian wife. We swapped URL's. You're on mine; his provided me with yet another dimension to the man, not previously mentioned, industrial chaplain.
Nonetheless, if for the soul's sake only, we need the occasional reminder that "we all have to die sometime." The thought anchors us to reality when we soar, like angels before our time. It can cool our rage at the other, whoever that other might be we detest, knowing that he too, however high he rises or victorious he might be, travels to the same end. "Mine Enemy Grows Older," wrote Alexander King, the late night raconteur of the last generation. And reminders of our mortality (a familiar strategy to those who occupy the pulpit) may spur our willingness to change our unproductive ways, knowing that the time left to do something about them shortens.
In our society optimism is a virtue; pessimism, a sin. Some political candidates never learn that lesson. Mostly they don't get elected.
Same with preachers... and, I suspect, rabbis. Remember Jeremiah, from whom we get "jeremiad," a synonym for rant. That prophet came to a sad and lonely end. One of my Brooklyn congregants repeatedly advised me that you catch more bees with honey than vinegar. True, enough, as a pew-sitter in retirement I have little patience with the preacher who spends the morning being a common scold. This bee buzzes off to another hive.
On the other hand, I turn sour with the pulpiteer who has a smile engraved into his face. Nothing spoils a sunlit day more than the total absence of clouds. Like my father-in-law's colleague, a chaplain stationed in San Diego, chuckled in a phone call east, opening with a weather report: "Damn it, another sunny day." As a congregant from Brooklyn, then in the Navy on the West Coast learning Japanese, complained, "I really miss a rainy day." And he wasn't kidding. We need darkness, if only to make the light shine brighter.
It's Ash Wednesday.
Time to contemplate our mortality. Thank you, rabbi. Right at the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures (that is, Old Testament), in Genesis, Chapter Three, after Chapter Two's description of Adam's origin from a handful of dust, God bans our first parents from Eden requiring them to work for their bread, for "dust thou [art] and unto dust shalt thou return" (King James Version). That verdict has been embedded in the language of the English-speaking world with the burial ritual of the Church of England in which the priest intones graveside, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." A reminder of our mortality and the fragility of life.
I sang, as does every child in this land at one time or another, "Ring around the rosy." Wikipedia disputes the claim I thought fact, that this nursery rhyme originated with the plagues that decimated Europe in the late Middle Ages. Maybe it didn't, but "ashes, ashes, all fall down," sure sounds less like a summons to curtsy before the Queen than it does a tip of the hat to the rabbi's wisdom.