What We Leave Behind: Leo Tolstoy and the Mortality of Man
The most profound fear most of us have is of death. As La Rochefoucauld said, “Neither the sun nor death can be looked on with a steady eye.” The Untaneh Tokef prayer tells the poetry of mortality with haunting pathos:
“Man is founded in dust and ends in dust. He lays down his soul to bring home bread. He is like a broken shard, like grass dried up, like a faded flower, like a fleeting shadow, like a passing cloud, like a breath of wind, like whirling dust, like a dream that slips away.”
Few have explored death and the tragic shadow it casts over life more profoundly than King Solomon, the author of the book of Kohelet:
“The fate of man is the fate of cattle; the same fate awaits them both, the death of one is like the death of the other, their spirits are the same, and the pre-eminence of man over beast is nothing, for it is all shallow breath. All end in the same place; all emerge from dust and all go back to dust” (Kohelet 3:19-20).
The knowledge that he will die gives Solomon the feeling that there is no point to his life. We have no idea what will happen, after our death, to what we have achieved in life. Death makes mockery of virtue: the hero may die young while the coward lives to old age. And bereavement is tragic in a different way. To lose those we love is to have the fabric of our life torn, perhaps irreparably. Death defiles in the simplest, starkest sense: mortality opens an abyss between us and God’s eternity.
The person in more recent times who most deeply experienced and expressed this was the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who told the story in his essay, A Confession. By the time he wrote it, in his early fifties, he had already published two of the greatest novels ever written, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. His literary legacy was secure. His greatness was universally recognized. He was married, with children. He had a large estate. His health was good. Yet he was overcome with a profound sense of the meaninglessness of life in the face of the knowledge that we will all die. He quoted Kohelet at length. He contemplated suicide. The question that haunted him was: “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?”
He searched for an answer in science, but all it told him was that “in the infinity of space and the infinity of time, infinitely small particles mutate with infinite complexity.” Science deals in causes and effects, not purpose and meaning. In the end, he concluded that only religious faith rescues life from meaninglessness. “Rational knowledge, as presented by the learned and wise, negates the meaning of life.” What he felt was needed was something other than rational knowledge. “Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must believe in something … If he does understand the illusion of the finite, he is bound to believe in the infinite. Without faith it is impossible to live.”
The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Beraishit 12:1)
Abraham was commanded to leave behind the sources of both tradition-directedness (“your father’s house”) and other-directness (“your land, your birthplace”). He was about to become the father of an inner-directed people.
His entire life was governed by an inner voice, the voice of God. He did not behave the way he did because that is how people had always acted, nor did he conform to the customs of his age. He had the courage to “be on one side while all the rest of the world was on the other.” His mission was to “instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Beraishit 18:19), so that they too would carry with them the inner voice wherever they went. Theirs was a morality of righteousness-and-guilt, not honor-and-shame or conformism-and-anxiety.
Hence the centrality of education in Judaism, since Jews would have to hold fast to their values even when they were a minority in a culture whose values were diametrically opposed to their own.
Hence the astonishing resilience of Jews throughout the ages, and their ability to survive change, insecurity, even catastrophe. People whose values are indelibly engraved in their minds and souls can stand firm against the majority and persist in their identity even when others are losing theirs. It was that inner voice that guided the patriarchs and matriarchs throughout the book of Genesis – long before they had become a nation in their own right, and before the more public miracles of the book of Exodus.
This life-changing idea of inner-directedness – the courage to be different – began with the words Lech lecha, which could be translated as “Go to yourself.” This means: follow the inner voice, as did those who came before you, continuing their journey by bringing timeless values to a rapidly-changing world.
For we defeat death, not by living forever but by living by values that live forever; by doing deeds and creating blessings that will live on after us; and by attaching ourselves in the midst of time to God who lives beyond time, “the King – the living, everlasting God.”
Remember that Jewish identity is that inner voice, learned in childhood, reinforced by lifelong study, rehearsed daily in ritual and prayer. That is what gives us a sense of direction in life. It gives us the confidence of knowing that Judaism, virtually alone among the cultures and civilizations of its day, has survived while the rest have been consigned to history. It is what allows us to avoid the false turns and temptations of the present, while availing ourselves of its genuine benefits and blessings.