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Death and Life: Three Perspectives
Yizkor Reflections
By Yosef Y. Jacobson
The Hebrew vernacular -- the language of the Torah and the Kabbalah – gives us three distinct and paradoxical names for a cemetery: 1) Beit Hakvarot, meaning a home for burial. 2) Bait Olam, meaning a home of eternity; and 3) Beit Hachaim, which means a home for the living.

Why the need for three diverse names for a cemetery, for that inexplicable place signifying, in George Harrison's words, that “All things must pass, none of life's strings can last”? What is significance behind the three conflicting names conferred by Jewish tradition on a cemetery?

The answer is profound in its simplicity.

Three interpretations 

These three titles – a home for burial, for eternity and for the living -- represent three ways in which we can interpret death. These three interpretations are symptoms of three ways in which we can interpret life. The way we define life, is the way we define death.

If we define life as an exclusively physical experience, an opportunity to maintain, nurture and gratify our material and physical selves; if life is merely about tending to the appetites of our bodies and hearts, then death – that unfathomable moment when the body turns lifeless – constitutes the tragic cessation of life. The cemetery, then, is a home for burial. A life has, sadly, reached its final chapter.


“It ain't over 'til it's over,” Yogi Berra taught us. But in the cemetery, “it’s over.”

But there is another possible perspective on the meaning of life: Seeing life as a spiritual experience, in addition to a physical one. If life is also about nurturing and nourishing our souls, our spiritual identity, our inner spark of G-d, then death, as irrevocable as it is, is not the interruption of life.

Tragic and horrendously painful? Absolutely yes. The end of one's life? Absolutely not. Because a soul never dies. It continues to live, love and feel in another dimension, on a spiritual plane, one that cannot be grasped through our senses of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling or tasting. Yet, the soul, which is an aspect of G-d, a fragment of the divine, is not subjected to death, only to travel from one realm of experience to another.

In this perception of life and death, a cemetery is a home of eternity. The body is interred, but the soul remains eternal.

Yet there is something even greater we can achieve. If we, those left behind, use the passion and the values of our loved ones who are not here with us, to inspire and affect our daily lives and behavior, then the cemetery becomes a “home for the living.” By inspiring and touching the daily lives and choices of their children, students, friends, relatives and communities, they are in some very real sense still alive. Their own dreams and ideals continue to exist, in a very tangible way, in the earthly lives of the people touched by their love and goodness.

Three ways of saying goodbye 

In a few days, on Rosh Hashanah and then again on Yom Kippur, Jews the world over will assemble at their synagogues for the Yizkor services, in which they will shed a tear and say a prayer for loves ones who have departed. Those of us blessed to still enjoy the presence of our parents and children, customarily leave the synagogue during these prayers, as this is an intimate and highly charged moment designated for those who have seen the darker side of life and touched pain in its rawness. Those of us who, thank G-d, haven't experienced reality on that level, have no right to remain in the synagogue during such moments.  

What is Yizkor?

To begin with, of course, it is about remembering our loves ones who have been taken from us.

But how will we choose to remember them? Will we give them once again a heartfelt goodbye, expressing how much we miss them and how the void is still so palpable? Will we pay tribute to a soul eternally lodged in heaven, linking ourselves to the divine aspect of our loved ones which never dies? Or will we, in some small but genuine way, bring our loves ones back to life, by sustaining their passions, dreams and commitments in our own physical and earthly daily lives?

Of course, it is not a choice of either\or. All three are appropriate and authentic. Each has its own place in the majestic and tragic pathways of the human heart.

Remembering the six million

This Yom Kippur the entire Jewish community will recite a collective Yizkor for the six million, including one and a half million children, who perished in the Holocaust. We will recite Yizkor for the 1,000 Jews blown to pieces in the streets of their homeland over the past several years. We will remember the young beautiful souls of the Israel Defense Forces killed in daily combat, many of them 18-19 year old teenagers who instead of pursuing their education were compelled to confront an enemy determined to exterminate them and their families.

We will remember all innocent people whose lives have been cut short. In Sudan, in Iraq, in Russia, in Spain, in Afghanistan, and the world over.

We will remember them all.

Yet the question we, the Jewish people living in 2004, must answer to ourselves and our children is this:

Will we allow Auschwitz and Treblinka to remain homes of burial? Or will we lovingly embrace not only the deaths but also the lives, the dreams and the passions of the six million?

Will we merely create beautiful and heart wrenching memorials and museums for dead Jews, or will we bring them back to life in our own?

Only you and I, those who are fortunate to still possess the gift of physical life, can and will decide whether Ground Zero – and all of the Ground Zeroes in our long and bloody history – will remain a home of burial and eternity, or will become a home for the living. Will we have the courage to put a living smile on the faces of our ancestors on high, who sacrificed so much to ensure that the people of Israel would survive and thrive?

Close your eyes

This Yom Kippur, close your eyes and you might hear the whispering voices of six million:

“Give your children and yourself the gift of Torah, the gift of loving kindness, the gift of Shabbas, the gift of Mikvah, Kashrut, Mezuzah, Tzedakah (charity). Give your sweet daughters the gift of Shabbos candles and grant your precious sons, the gift of daily tefilin. Fill your homes with books of Torah and moral inspiration.

“Bestow upon your children the infinite richness of a Jewish Torah education. That way, in their daily lives, we will continue to live and breathe."

Posted on October 12, 2005
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