From Death to Life

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As we wrapped up the festival of Passover, our Christian brothers and sisters were reflecting on a story of resurrection.

On the one hand, we can say that the theme of resurrection does not play a major role in Jewish theology. On the other hand, what is resurrection if not the renewal of life? With the coming of spring we see how the natural cycle of the world is one of birth, death and rebirth. Even the Passover story is about a people burdened by the dehumanizing shackles of slavery that is redeemed and led to a new life. And as the Passover story serves as a paradigm for understanding our own stories, we see that we are constantly being given chances as new life.

There are references to resurrection in our liturgy and sacred text as well. This past Shabbat, in a special biblical reading for Passover, we read the story of Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones, in which God revives a valley full of skeletons to demonstrate the future redemption of the Jewish people. In our liturgy a reference to resurrection can be found in the Amidah, the standing silent prayer we recite as part of our regular services. The Amidah is actually made up of a series of smaller berachot/blessings. In one paragraph we read:

God sustains the living with lovingkindness, and with great compassion revives the dead. God support the fallen, heals the sick, sets captives free, and keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust. Who is like you, Master of might, to whom can You be compared, O Ruler, who brings death and gives life, and makes salvation grow? Faithful are You to revive the dead. Blessed are You, who revives the dead.

In the Reform and Reconstructionist liturgy, the words “revived the dead” (in Hebrew, mechaye hametim) are changed. The liturgists of these movements, uncomfortable with the traditional theological notion of a bodily resurrection, change the words to bless God as the source of all life, rather than the reanimator of the dead.

I remember this change took some getting used to. Not that I share the traditional theology of a revival of the dead, but I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, and so the traditional words were part of my regular recitation. When I shifted denominations, and began studying at the Reconstructionist seminary, I had to adjust to the new liturgical words.

One time during the middle of my studies–on Labor Day, 2000, which I remember because Yohanna was very pregnant at the time–Yohanna and I were mugged. Making a right turn on a Philadelphia street, we were clipped by a passing car. Doing the good citizen thing, I pulled over, as did the other car. Rather than a friendly exchange of insurance information, I was quickly surrounded by 3-4 men who began to harass me, hitting me up for money to “forget the whole thing.” When I demurred their entreaties became more curt and belligerent.

Unnoticed by our attackers, Yohanna got out of the passenger side of the car and began to flag down another driver who might have a cell phone. (This was before phones were ubiquitous). When they saw what was going on, they quickly jumped in the car and fled. We drove home, shaken, and it was only then that Yohanna mentioned to me what I did not notice at the time: Since I was looking at their faces, I did not see that they were brandishing a gun at their waist.

We called the police and filed a report. Apparently this was a common M.O.-hitting cars then mugging the drivers. We were happy to escape unharmed and without actually having to give anything to the muggers.

The next day was a Tuesday, the day our rabbinical college holds a big, all-college shacharit (morning) service. When it came time for the Amidah, without thinking, I fell back into the liturgies of my youth and recited mechaye hametim, rather than the newer words. At first I just thought it was an absent-minded lapse. But when I thought more about it, I believe those words were more fitting at that moment. For I was truly back from the dead. On the one hand I could have been killed. But even without the physical violence, I was treated as less than human by these muggers. The night before I was dead in the eyes of my attackers. The next day I realized I survived bodily injury and I also had my humanity restored.

Since then I have had other instances of resurrection. I’ve been put under twice for major surgery and come back. I’ve survived an illness with a not-insignificant mortality rate. But in smaller ways too–I have been mistaken and then corrected, I have been challenged and then liberated, I have been lead astray and found myself on the right path.

We all have had these instances. Look again at the paragraph from the Amidah. The words speak of the ways we can experience resurrection: we fall, and we are raised up. We get sick, and we are healed. We are captive, and we are set free. These are the resurrections which form our narratives. Can you recognize them operating in your life? They are the times that, no matter what we are facing, we know things can be renewed.

And perhaps there is no better statement of resurrection than this one from the Talmud, Berachot 58b:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees a friend after 30 days since their last meeting recites, Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has given us life (shechecheyanu), sustains us and brought us to this time. One who sees a friend after 12 months has passed says, Blessed are You, who revives the dead (mechaye hametim)

We live our lives in relationship. So while we experience resurrections in our individual journeys, we experience them in our relationships as well. When we lose touch, or fall out of favor with another, it is a form of death. When we renew our connections, or deepen our relationships, it is a form of resurrection.

We move out of Passover and into spring with that hope: the hope that despite the past, a future revival is possible.

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