As we put a close to 2015 and reflect on the year that has passed, we also create closure around iconic figures who died this year: Yogi Berra, Oliver Sacks, E.L. Doctorow, B.B. King, Robin Williams, John Nash, and Leonard Nemoy. In their respective fields, they each became known for a certain type of skill, intelligence, voice and idiosyncratic, beloved way of viewing the world. It's not hard to make a jump from the death of any of these figures to the closure, in some way, of the talent that each respectively represents. Will sports, literature, music, comedy, or medicine ever be the same? Yes and no.
Thinking about the loss of a leader and the loss of that leader's gifts, brings us to a fascinating passage of the Talmud. This past week we closed another tractate of Talmud [BT Sota 49b] and moved to a new volume. The last page closed with the sense of closure generally, recording what was lost when a number of famous sages died and a retrospective on what was lost when the Second Temple was destroyed.
When Rabbi Meir died, those who related parables ceased.
When Ben Azzai died, the diligent ones ceased.
When Ben Zoma died, interpreters ceased.
When Rabbi Akiva died, the honor of the Torah ceased.
When Rabbi Yosi died, the pious were no more.
When Yohanan ben Zakai died, the glory of wisdom ceased.
When Raban Gamliel the Elder died, the honor of the Torah ceased as did purity and asceticism.
When Rabbi Yishmael ben Pazi died, the honor of the priesthood ceased.
When Rabbi Yehuda the Prince died, humility and fear of sin ceased.
As the Talmudic text continues and discusses the destruction of the Second Temple, despair overtakes the language. It's not only that certain intellectual and spiritual losses were sustained when these individuals passed away, when they died it seemed that all they represented died with them. And when the text turns its focus on the Temple - the building at the heart of our ancient lives - and it lay in ruination, people bowed their heads down in shame, this passage tells us, and arrived at a conclusion: "Upon whom is there for us to rely?" the voice of the narrator asks, "Only upon our Father in heaven."
If we rely too heavily on mortals, we ignore our own mortality, the Talmud seems to suggest. People die, even famous people die. Even scholars, whose wisdom ages with them, die. Become too attached to them and you will experience a loss that is more intense than letting go of their person - you will have to let go of hope itself. If wisdom ceases, Torah ceases and interpretation ceases then the scholarly world itself dies. We understand these lines as the highest form of praise, and yet there seems to be something intensely un-Jewish about them.
It is then that two voices perk up and appear in our debate.
Rabbi Yosef challenged the despair: "Do not teach that humility ceased. There is one who is still humble: me." Rabbi Nahman challenged the one who taught this mishna: "Do not teach that fear of sin ceased. There is still one who feared sin: me."
When I first read this, I laughed. It sounded like a variation of the statement, "You won't find anyone more modest than I am," which undermines the very quality of humility. But in reading it again and thinking about its deeper meaning, it's not hard to understand why this is a perfect rebuttal of the pathos that can overtake us when we think we have lost the greatest generation. When that happens, we have to take stock of what the loss means and what the loss forces us to become.
We must each take responsibility to replace those who came before us and who represented something extraordinary to us and society at large. We can't foist that upon someone else. We have to stand up and recover from the pain and realize that all continues. We must evolve and replace that which we have lost. We can't bring back people who have died, but sometimes with their deaths, they become the most incredible teachers and mentors for the next generation. That generation is us.