The first time I was in the room when someone died was life changing. I was sitting with a friend at the local hospital on a small couch that was meant for loved ones to watch over ill patients. My friend *Samantha and I went back decades and there were times as a young man we’d hang in her mom’s backyard and go swimming in the pool to get out of the heat.
When Sam called me to come to the hospital I came right away. As I drove my palms started sweating and my heart beat a little faster. I’d never done this before, really. I’d taken classes and gone through trainings, but I was about to watch someone die, someone I knew, and I was not sure I could get through it.
When I arrived, Sam gave me a weak hug. We meekly held hands as we walked slowly into the hospital room. The lights were dim and it smelled of iodine. It was quiet except for the rhythmic motions of the respirator and the methodical beeping of the heart rate monitor. As we approached her mother, Sam reached out and held her hand. I, in the meantime, stood awkwardly behind her, pretending to be preoccupied with the patterns on the hospital blanket. I remember clearly standing in the room at the foot of the bed, listening to Sam’s mom’s breathing, the whirling of the machines and the methodical beeps of the monitors.
Medicine has its own music.
I quietly guided Sam to speak to her mom with tenderness, thanking her for her life, and sharing a few sweet memories, from being a scout leader to teaching her how to bake, to how to fight for a better job and not put up with the mess that comes with being a woman. We said the words of the Shema together, she kissed her forehead, and moved to the couch and sat down to wait.
Waiting for death.
Sam looked at me and she whispered, that she was afraid of what would happen next. “It’s not that I’m afraid that she will die, I know that’s about to happen. I’m afraid of how that will feel. I’m afraid of suffering. I’m afraid of my own pain, after, when my whole world comes to an end.”
Sam has always been a controlling kind of lady. She was always the most organized as kids, and knew exactly what her schedule was going to be. She felt, probably from her mom, that to be strong was to try to control her environment around her, plan everything, craft reality, stay in control.
In some ways, Sam’s experience is indicative of the way many of us feel about our lives. Our cultural need for control shows up over and over again. It’s evident in our obsession with beauty and looking perfect, choosing our coffee order, demanding to know where we sit in the movie theater or checking every few seconds to know exactly how long the Uber will take. We try to build systems to give us an ever-widening sense of control. School. Work. Sports. Politics. All meant to cover over what feels like the eruption of chaos, and it begins inside ourselves, by trying to avoid our own discomfort.
My friend Dr. David Rosmarin, who founded the Center for Anxiety, put it this way. He says, “It’s not an accident that sales of over-the-counter painkillers in the US top $5.4B each year. That’s more than the entire Gross National Product of Fiji! We are dead set on avoiding pain because when we feel uncomfortable it reminds us that we are not in control.” Our anxiety about pain drives drug sales, therapy, addiction, and keeps us from being fully alive.
It’s not death that Sam was afraid of. She was afraid to feel.
The last time I remember feeling that way was recently at a big gala. There were a huge dance floor and hundreds of people, the food and cocktails were great and the cause was even greater. As the band struck up the music my wife grabbed me and asked me to dance. I said no. In my mind it was not because I can’t or just wasn’t in the mood, but because I was worried if I could relax enough to let loose. There were powerful relationships in the room and I was a rabbi. What if they saw me being silly? There I was with my wife who was trying to pull me on the dance floor, and I was afraid of letting go, of losing control, and living it up with my love. It was then that I noted yet again how afraid we are to feel. Our culture of control is so strong that keeps us from mourning and from dancing.
If pain and joy both make us afraid and we run from them, then it’s not just feeling we are afraid of is it?
We are afraid of being alive.
The same anxious moment is found in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro. We find the Israelites, newly freed from Egypt standing at the foot of Mt Sinai, at the theological height of their history waiting for God’s holy words. Except, what happened next was unexpected. “All the people witnessed the thunder and the lightning, the blaring of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it, they shuddered and moved far off at a distance.” (Ex. 20:16) Just as God was showing up, at the most intimate moment, they ran. The Midrash adds that the Israelites quaked so much that they stampeded twelve miles away from the mountain. (Rashi, Mekkhlita ad locum)
When God breaks into your life, like the Israelites, our culture of control has trained you to recoil. God’s voice reverberating through life is always destabilizing. The sacred is scary. The Divine always demands something of you; to feel, to change, to grow. That’s the meaning of revelation itself. To break into the normalcy of life and open a gate to your own potential. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Netziv recast the Sinai experience as a moment of spiritual growth. He writes, “Human spiritual greatness — that is God’s purpose.” ( Ex. 20) The ability to stand, to endure suffering, and joy, the immense amplification of your inner resources that is the heritage of Sinai. God comes to Sinai so that we can come into our own.
Living vividly, with the full spectrum of our emotions is exactly what God wants. Fight against the impulse to run away from being fully alive. As the Bible says, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1) Do not be afraid of the fullness of life, the good, the bad, the agony, the ecstasy, the boredom, the enthralling; it is all part of God’s world.
Don’t be afraid to feel and to hold on through the storms of anger and the warm breezes of love. To ride high in laughter and low in shame, to feel the entire spectrum of human emotion means you are living out God’s plan for the world, to stand at the mountain and not to run away when God shows up, that is what God wants.
Feel. It. All.
As we sat there on the couch and the sun set below the horizon and the room turned purple and pink, we heard Sam’s mom take just a few more breaths. The thrumming and beeping slowed, the medical chorus came to a rest…and she was gone. We removed her breathing mask and sat there a few moments longer. Sam, no longer afraid, cried loudly, shaking. When God showed up she stopped being afraid. I held her close and I thought to myself that in the moment she let go of her control, she seized a fuller part of herself. In the moment her mother had died, Sam was finally fully alive.