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“You All Are Going to Die,” Said the Rabbi to the 3rd-6th Graders. Appropriate or Not?

You all are going to die!” said the rabbi to his 3rd thru 6th grade students. It was all part of a day of death and dying at Congregation Or Ami’s Mishpacha Learning session.

While Rabbi Julia Weisz walked parents through the Jewish rituals and ideas about death and mourning and Cantor Doug Cotler taught Jewish songs to other students which explored Jewish ideas about life and loss, I – Rabbi Paul Kipnes – had the unenviable task to walking young students thru the realities of life, namely, that we are all going to die.

A Story…
There’s a rabbinic tale about a most powerful king who commanded the community’s rabbi to bless him with Judaism’s best blessing. Began the rabbi, “May you die. May your son die. And may your grandson die.” The king became apoplectic, barking, “How dare you…”, at which the rabbi continued, “…in that order.”

This story articulates three long held truths about death:

  • That everyone will die. 
  • That we hope that the older generation dies before its descendants. 
  • That, while each loss is painful, the death of a child or grandchild is even more painful. 

Accepting (at least for the remainder of the class) that death is inevitable, the students and I shared thoughts about what happens after we die, a theme introduced in Cantor Doug Cotler’s song, Nefesh. We talked about what the nefesh (soul) is or might be. We talked about Jewish ideas about how the soul returns to the Eternal Soul of the universe, what some call “God.” We considered diverse Jewish beliefs, from the belief that the soul dies with the body to the Kabbalist/mystic teaching that the soul is reincarnated (gilgul hanefesh) after death.

Lighting Candles to See into the Soul
We spent much time analyzing Jewish belief that we live on within future generations. I took out a pair of candles. I asked students to watch closely. Using one lit candle to light another candle, I then blew out the first candle and asked, “what happened to the flame?” Most said it disappeared. So I used the lit candle to again light another candle and then blew out the first. “What happened to the first flame,” I again asked?

One student intuited the lesson: “Two things happen at once. The flame disappears, and is gone. But also, the flame lives on in the second candle.” That’s my teaching.

From the flame that disappears, we learn that upon our deaths, part of our soul is gone, returning to the Eternal Soul of the universe. From the flame that continues to burn upon the candle it lit previously, we learn that our soul lives on in the lives of our biological children and our adopted children (Talmud explains that one who teaches a child is as important as his biological parent). Our soul also lives on – in a sense, we gain immortality – through the lives of those whose lives we enriched by our teaching, and those who we help with tzedakah and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness).

Our Soul Lives on After Us
So just as our biology overcomes death when we pass on our DNA to our children, so too our soul passes in part to those who borne to or touched by us.

Heady stuff for kids who can barely contemplate the truth of “you are all gonna die.” We hope these conversations helped the students begin to deal with death, as did the round robin stations created by HUC-JIR interns Lisa Berney and Sarah Lauing, which investigated Jewish mourning customs.

You see, at Congregation Or Ami we strive to teach about all issues, even the most difficult, even when the mere thought of them make us uncomfortable. Because that is what Judaism should be about – helping us face, with courage, strength and holiness, the challenging moments of life.

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