By Dr. Bernie Kastner
Dovid HaMelech’s yahrzeit is on Shavuot. We also know that aside from his greatness as a king, he played a musical instrument in order to distance himself from “ruach ra-ah” that at times enveloped him. That reminded me of a mizmor Tehillim (perek 9) in which Dovid HaMelech instructs “Lamnazeach al moot laben mizmor.” I thought that was a strange queue given to the conductor of this shir. What does “al moot” mean? A song upon the death of a son? Rashi comments that “almoot” (written as one word) is a musical instrument and that the name of the musical performer is Ben. Another possibility is that it is HaMelech Dovid, as a bereaved father, referring to the death of his son Avshalom. Yet another explanation is that “almoot” means beyond youth. This is a reference to Am Yisrael who over the years grows up (“k’sheyitlaben yalduto”) and eventually the nation reaches Olam HaBa at which time we will finally be happy in the notion that we will have obliterated Amalek and its descendants.
These varied explanations are important in the context of my struggle with a particular sensitivity to the word “death.”
Oftentimes we come across people who have an obsession about having the last word, being the last one out of a room, sitting in the very last row of a classroom, or going through certain rituals before preparing for a game. For example, professional athletes will have a particular routine they follow to get their body ready for game-time battle; they will eat a specific type of dinner the night before, and may choose not to shave during a losing streak. Call it a superstition or a good luck charm. There are those who believe that they will jinx a situation if they break their regular ritual of doing things.
I admit that I have a particular obsession too and that is: not ending a spoken sentence with the word death or dying. For some reason, this always gave me the chills, as if it were a self-fulfilling prophesy to come to me soon. Of course this was just a rationalization of negative self-talk, treatable, by the way, by cognitive behavioral therapy. For the purposes of this article, let us put therapy aside and stick with the substance of the sentence ending itself. So what do I do when I encounter such a thing? I am quick to add a sentence or phrase that counters it or that simply emits a more positive thought. Incidentally, our Sages seem to have also been caught up with the same potential avoidance of an “ayin ha’ra.” How many examples do we have of haftaros we chant on Shabbos taken from the book of Nevi’im or K’tuvim wherein the last sentence ends on a negative note? For example, in the haftarah for Shabbos rosh chodesh (Isaiah 66:1-24), the last pasuk reads, “And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.” Since this would seem to end on a sour note, Chazal instituted the addition of another pasuk in order for the theme to end on a more positive and uplifting note. In this case, we repeat pasuk 23 which reads: “And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the L-rd.”
So I guess I am not alone in being bothered by a word or thought that ends on a bad note. As I alluded to in the introductory paragraph, here’s an example of what has been a point of acute sensitivity for me for many years: the last word of the shir shel yom for Monday. The last four words are: “Hu yenahageinu al moot.” The entire verse, taken from Tehillim 48:14, reads: “For this G-d is our G-d forever and ever; He will be our guide even unto death.” Even though the thought is expressed in a rather positive manner, the last word, at least for me, sticks out like a sore thumb. As a bereaved father, one never becomes desensitized to this word.
Since this was bothering me so much, I began to look into the meaning of “al moot” and tried to see if there is a rephrase or reframe here that would make me feel better about this ending. And, lo and behold, I am happy to report, as I briefly noted in the introductory paragraph, there indeed is more than one explanation that turns this phrase into a positive. Let me now share those with you.
The definition of the words “al moot,” unto death, could also be seen as one word “almoot,” which is interpreted in a number of ways. One meaning is “a world in which there is no death.” Another meaning is “youth”–that Hashem will tenderly guide us in our advanced age as if we were young children. Yet another definition is taken from the same root “olamot,” whereby Hashem will guide us in this world and in the world to come and will watch over us as He watches over all His children. Furthermore, according to the Mesilat Yesharim (Chapter 7) “almoot” also could mean “bizrizoot”–quickly and willingly.
So far I am starting to feel better about this.
A question arises: how does not knowing our exact date of our transitioning (from this world to the next) bring us closer to Hashem?
Were we to know the exact day of our death, our lives would turn into a defined budget of days, minutes, and seconds. While one may see this as actually raising the value of life by cherishing every last minute one may have left, still it leaves one with a feeling of an artificially measured time in which one cannot relax and enjoy. By having this detail remain unknown, it ties us to a dimension of “netzach,” eternity, without boundaries. Otherwise, this world and thus our lives would lose its ability to be seen as eternal, a key aspect in our psychological outlook on our general world view. Hence, by aspiring to an “einsof” we raise the value of things that we do and the love we have for Hashem because of our hopeful expectations for good.
HaRav Adin Shteinsaltz writes that a Jew’s struggle in this world is to set himself free from the fear of death. In aggadic descriptions of our ongoing war waged against our enemy, the Malach HaMaves, there is no room for merely going through the motions of existing on a day-to-day basis. We must aspire to rip away the sword from the hand of the Malach HaMaves.
When we have a weak moment in our emunah, we lose the battle in coping with this enemy. We must recognize, however, that death is just a temporary obstacle–and hence it is incumbent upon every one of us to strive to overcome it. When a person recites the pasuk “bila hamaves lanetzach . . .” (Yeshayah 25:8), it is referring to the prophesy that Hashem will swallow up death forever, and will wipe away the tears from all faces. In other words, there is hope that this enemy can be defeated. As I alluded to earlier, Chazal bring a clarification via the interpretation of Akilas HaGer on “hu yenahagehu al moot”–it is a world devoid of death. Am Yisrael is proceeding and closing in on a world in which it will be not only possible, but natural, to overcome and to transcend way beyond the temporariness of death.
HaRav Gershon Kitzis says in the name of the Baal Shem Tov that this phrase is likened to a father who is teaching his toddler how to take his first steps. When the child succeeds in taking two or three steps toward the open arms of his father, the father will invariably take an additional step or two backwards in order to see if the son will continue to take those few extra steps into his waiting arms. This is the father’s way of teaching, encouraging, pushing his son towards greater success. And this is the reason that Hashem is referred to as “Ha-el Hanistar,” One who is hidden from our view.
This is a beautiful mashal of how Hashem views His relationship with Am Yisrael. May we all, as individuals and as a community, be blessed with the ability to take those steps necessary to bring greater achievement into our lives and into the lives of our loved ones. v
This article/dvar Torah is dedicated l’iluy nishmat our son, Gedalia Natan, z’l, whose tenth yahrzeit falls on Shavuot.
Dr. Bernie Kastner is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Jerusalem. He is also the author of “Understanding the Afterlife in This Life” and “Masa El Haor.” His latest sefer, entitled “HaOlam She’acharei,” was published in Hebrew by Dani Sefarim and is available in major bookstore chains in Israel. Feel free to visit his website at drbkastner.com. Dr. Kastner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.