Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Reflections on Life and Death

The thoughts for this letter came to me while walking in a beautiful rainforest in Costa Rica. There are so many different kinds of trees in the forest, trees of all heights and kinds, and vines and creepers. And beneath those trees and vines and creepers, the ground is covered with fallen leaves, twigs, branches, whole tree-trunks … all part of the rich life of the forest.

In the midst of the towering trees and the fallen logs, it struck me that there is no clear distinction between what is alive and what is dead. Rather, there is an astonishingly complex pattern of interdependence and regeneration. The creatures and the plant life need each other, and the so-called “dead” branches and leaves are part of that pattern. They are far from useless: they provide home and nourishment to insects and small animals and other organisms, and gradually they break down to fertilize the soil, giving new growth, new life. In fact they are essential to the life and health of the new trees.

In that way, what is fallen seems as alive as the tall majestic trees. Certainly in the grand scheme of nature, the fallen, the “dead”, seem just as valuable. How odd that we human beings don't regard our dead as alive and valuable and nourishing! But that's exactly what they are.

In the Jewish tradition, we place great value on life: this life. It is not, as in some cultures, merely a preparation for a future life after death. This life, what we do in it, how we behave towards others, what we do to help bring about a better world – these are what count.

So once we die, do we become irrelevant to the rich pattern of life? Do we lose all value? That is how many people think about death, but I believe they are wrong. Just like those fallen trees and branches in the forest, what we have been in our lives will continue to affect those we leave behind, contributing to their lives.

Let me give an example. I continue to be inspired by the man I still regard as "my rabbi", several years after his death. He was a deeply spiritual man, who would speak and sing to God with all his heart and soul, but he combined that with a passion for changing the world for the good. His example taught me that spirituality – our relationship with God – has little value unless it is reflected in how we try to bring good unto the world. Like a great fallen tree in the forest, my rabbi continues to affect the lives of so many people who knew him or studied with him.

It is not just the “big” people in our lives (like parents and significant teachers) who make a lasting difference. Don’t you find that when someone shows trust in you, it adds to your confidence? Or when someone laughs at you, or treats you badly, it makes you feel smaller and less confident in the world? Just think back on the love your parents gave you, or some act of kindness or nobility shown by a friend – how that made you a better person. Whatever we do in our lifetimes affects others, and that effect remains after we have gone.

Where do these reflections lead me? On the one hand, I feel I must try to live up to the good bequeathed to me by so many who have gone before. After all, my life has been enriched enormously by countless people who are no longer alive – not just people I knew, but also people who died even before I was born, like all those men and women over the centuries who contributed to Jewish life and culture.

On the other hand, I think it’s important for me to be aware that every act of mine, for good or for bad – like a leaf on the floor of the rainforest – will continue to do its good or its bad long after my physical death.

I have come to realize that I want to leave behind a real (even if invisible) legacy for good in the lives of others. When my earthly life comes to an end, my hidden influence will continue. And I want that continuing influence to be for the good.

Don’t you feel the same way?

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

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