Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh says:
Be exceedingly humble in spirit, for the anticipated end of mortal man is worms.
Little is known about Rabbi Levitas – this is the only saying attributed to him in the Mishnah.
It is ironic that this is the next verse from Pirke Avot for me to comment on – I am still recovering from my second heart attack which occurred ten days ago. A ride in the ambulance, time spent in a hospital bed, surgery etc. – all tend to force us to confront our mortality.
Our interpretation must address two co-existing elements within the text. The first is that we shall surely die. The second is that we are more than our mortal bodies. Both of these elements call for humility.
We shall surely die.
From the cycle of the seasons to our daily consumption of food (and particularly meat) we are surrounded by the reality of death – and yet we manage to mostly ignore it! We sanitize death and push it away.
Other people slaughter the cows and pigs and chickens. Others clean it up and cut it up. Others package it and sell it. By the time we purchase it in our supermarkets we consider it simply meat (and dinner) and no longer connect it to an actual animal and its death. Farm families have no such illusions!
Even with our fellow human beings we do our best to opt out from dealing with the end of life. Hospitals and funeral homes take care of things for us.
To be aware of our mortality is to be aware of our limitations, our finitude. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. This is not a call to be “morbid” or preoccupied with death – that is taking things to an opposite extreme.
To be aware of our eventual death is to have a boundary line or horizon before which we can see life and all of its gifts and blessings more clearly. It is a boundary or horizon which might allow us to see how unimportant or distracting other things are in the grand scheme of things. Knowing that we will die can give us a sense of urgency and focus for living our lives in a full and holy way.
If we persist in pretending that we are not going to die then we can always put off some important things (like forgiveness, reconciliation with others, loving and caring for others) until tomorrow (and the next day, and the next day …).
In the face of death all of us – rich and poor, powerful and powerless, famous and anonymous – all of us are the same. We can take nothing with us. Death will humble us eventually. The reality of death should perhaps cause us to be humble in life as well.
We are more than our mortal bodies.
Religion has been accused of pandering to people, of offering “pie in the sky when you die”. Perhaps it has been abused in this way – but this is not what the rabbi or our authentic traditions teach.
Our faith is based on promises from God that this is not “all there is”. That beyond this world and this life is mystery and some sort of communion with God.
Far from denigrating this life then – this idea emphasizes that this life truly matters! How we live and act and love in our allotted time on earth is a preparation for whatever it is that comes next. This life gives us an opportunity for relationship with God and with others.
In relationship with God and others a stance of humility is the foundation.
St. Francis of Assisi wrote “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” which concludes by blessing Sister Death. I think that St. Francis and the rabbi were of one mind. Here is a translation from Wikipedia:
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.