Death, Moses and Late-Breaking Change

(For Ner Shalom Malakh, February 2009)

I've been thinking a lot about death lately. I often do - especially when flying, which I do so very much; or when I'm drifting off to sleep. I am jarred by death's extravagant unpredictability - airplanes ditching into icy rivers without a soul lost; a beloved rabbi dying of heart failure at 65 after a lifetime of meditation, prayer and daily exercise. I do my own secret math, and am now on the losing end of it. No matter how many resolves to exercise more (or even at all), no matter how many hopeful assessments of my genetic heritage, there is indisputably less time ahead than there is behind. Decisions of years ago have hardened into irrevocability, and I now meet the thought of spontaneity with more suspicion than I'd like to admit.

And then there is the thing itself. The nagging, unfathomable thing. What is the completeness of death? What happens to all we've experienced and learned? Snuffed out like a match? Expelled like a puff of air from a burst balloon? What happens to my memory of loved ones whom no one after me will have known? How unfair that these good people should be forgotten! And what of my giddy love of Hebrew verbs or how I thrill at certain Debussy chords? Where does all that personal intricacy go?

It doesn't strike me as odd that I think about these things. What is odd to me is that the fear doesn’t simply paralyze us all.

In this month's batch of Torah portions, the Children of Israel make a late break for it. They are old in the land - that is, they've been in Mitzrayim for 400 years. Life is misery, but it is also habit. Leaving is a mystery and the outside world seems an oblivion not unlike death.

Moshe, whom we think of as young and impulsive (an accidental vigilante who killed an Egyptian taskmaster) or middle-aged and formidable (on the Barack Obama model perhaps), is actually 80 years old at the time of the Exodus. He has already lived what any of us would consider a good, long life. He grew up in a palace, became a fugitive, and ended up a shepherd in Midian. He had surely already foreseen how the end of his days would go - in peace, he hoped, tending the sheep, amusing his grandchildren, until death found him.

But at age 80, Moshe was transformed and in turn transformed the world around him. He came upon a bush aflame. With the patience of age, he studied the bush long enough to see that it was not being consumed. A young, impulsive Moshe might not have noticed. A young Moshe might not have realized that the fire was a vision and that the ground beneath him was holy.

So how do we, busy counting down our own days, remain alert to the possibility of great transformation, even at this late hour? How do we keep our eyes open to seeing visions and our ears open to hearing a call? How do we maintain our belief in the power of our own actions, even as we understand less how to work our computers? How do we believe in new beginnings even as our work lives, family lives, and personal idiosyncrasies seem so deeply etched in us?

We can start by looking to Moshe and his late-life change. He didn’t start over from scratch. He brought his work life with him. From being a shepherd of sheep he became a shepherd of his people. He brought his family too, and in times of challenge was inevitably flanked by brother, sister, wife, father-in-law or children. He brought his idiosyncrasies also: the entitlement of a prince, the alertness a fugitive, a short fuse, and a fear that he couldn’t speak with the clarity he needed. Moshe didn’t trade in his past. He brought his entire biography with him into his greatest work. He did not change as much as metamorphose. He took what he already had and became greater, more open, more powerful.

Change, growth, transformation. All these are possible at any age. Relinquishing one’s past is not required. To a caterpillar, a butterfly may be an unrecognizable species. But the butterfly knows it carries the caterpillar within it. The change that seems inconceivable to you now will seem natural and inevitable once you’re there.

Let us not give up at any age on being greater, more open and more powerful. May our lives be continual transformation and growth. So that when death does arrive, and may it be a very long time from now, we may meet it proudly, knowing that we spent every moment of our lives, even the evening hours, becoming.