With Rabbi Benjamin Blech
What is the most important quote of the year? I love the end-of-the-year lists the media comes up with.
We’ve been bombarded with compilations of almost every conceivable category. But the one I found most fascinating was the list of the greatest quotes of the year – the most powerful, significant and important things anyone said in 2011.
According to the Wall Street Journal the winning entry was Steve Jobs’ exclamation, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” They were his last words before he passed away. His sister, Mona Simpson, described the scene in her eulogy. When she arrived at his bedside close to the end, she found Jobs surrounded by his family – “he looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze” – and managing to hang on to consciousness.
“He looked,” she said, “like someone whose luggage was already strapped onto the vehicle, who was already on the beginning of his journey, even as he was sorry, truly deeply sorry, to be leaving us.”
However, he began to deteriorate. “His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful. I could feel him counting his steps again, pushing farther than before. This is what I learned: he was working at this, too. Death didn’t happen to Steve, he achieved it.”
After making it through one final night, wrote Simpson, her brother began to slip away. “His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude. He seemed to be climbing.
“Steve’s final words were: ‘Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.'”
“But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.
“Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times.
“Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.
“Steve’s final words were: ‘Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.'”
This great visionary had one last revelation. It apparently overwhelmed him with its beauty. He could only respond to it with a repeated exclamation of amazement.
What was it that he saw?
We cannot of course be certain. But we should not discount a great many clues. We have evidence from numerous sources. Some are merely anecdotal; others are rooted in religious traditions and mystical beliefs.
They explain why most of mankind throughout the millennia have chosen to accept that death is not the end, that we survive in some way when our bodies can no longer function, and that there is something that awaits us at the end of our final journey that will so awe us by its unearthly beauty and splendour that we will only be able to stammer “Oh wow” when we perceive it.
Death is our universal destiny. None of us will be spared its decree. Yet its meaning remains cloaked in mystery. All of us will leave this earth without the certainty of our destination.
None of us want to believe we are mortal. We live our lives as if we will be around forever.
We can’t imagine our nonexistence, and so we deny the possibility of our disappearance.
Like Woody Allen, we claim we’re not afraid of death but “We just don’t want to be there when it happens.” We stubbornly persist in believing that we will somehow be the exception to the fate of all humankind.
Every moment is more precious when you know it could be your last.
In some ways, acknowledging mortality is liberating. Kris Allen’s popular lyric offers the hope that “I wish you can live life like you know you’re dying.” Every moment is more precious when you know it could be your last. Every experience is more intense when you’re aware that it might never again be repeated.
But the flip side is that fear of the unknown is debilitating and depressing. We have no idea what awaits us and there is still so much here we have left undone. Will we never know what happens to our loved ones, will we never again see our mates or our children?
We wish we knew more about death. And the closer we get to that meeting with the universal mystery, the more urgent our need to define it.
Is death the end or a new beginning? Science can’t give us that answer but our tradition can shed light on the topic.
Jewish sources describe death as not the end but rather a glorious new beginning.
So awesome is what awaits us that the Mishnah (Avot 4:17) declares: “Greater is the joy of one hour in the world to come than all of the pleasures of this world.”
The Talmud assures us that we retain awareness of our identity, that we rejoin our loved ones who have predeceased us, that we have knowledge of what transpires on Earth, and that we enjoy the bliss of being near the presence of God which cannot be described in earthly terms.
Mystical sources describe the first experience in the afterlife as taking in a powerful and inexplicably beautiful light. It is the light of the very first day of creation which God set aside for the World to Come, and which differs profoundly from the light of the sun which wasn’t created until day four. Illuminated by this primordial light, we are enabled to “see” the totality of our lives in retrospect. We “relive” in memory all of our years and join in the celestial judgment of the ways we conducted ourselves – feeling deep remorse for our failings, while suffused with joy at our spiritual achievements.
Surely Heaven is not a place where you can enjoy a great steak or any other physical pleasure, when we lack the physical ability to do any of them. Without a body, some things just aren’t possible. But life has taught us that real happiness has far more to do with deepening our spiritual awareness and feelings than our physical pleasure.
To the degree we achieve spiritual heights in this world, is the degree we will enjoy the afterlife.
To the degree we achieve spiritual heights in this world, is the degree we will enjoy the afterlife where, after all, we do none of the things which people in this world do with their bodies, such as standing, sitting, sleeping, feeling pain, acting frivolously, and so on.
In the afterworld, souls will benefit from the radiance of the Divine Presence – that is, they will know and understand the existence of God in a manner that they couldn’t while in their gloomy and paltry body (Maimonides – Teshuva 8:2).
When Moses asked God to allow him to see the Almighty, the response was: “Man cannot see Me and live.” The inference for the Sages was that with death, however, we will be granted a glimpse of His glory – a vision so magnificent that it must almost certainly evoke a cry of “Oh wow” in response.
I have counselled hundreds of people in times of despair and loss, and learned much from them as well. Congregants shared with me stories of death and dying, as well as mystical experiences they were too embarrassed to reveal even to family for fear of being labelled emotionally unstable.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross, who dedicated her life to the study of death and dying, wrote that in her many years of being present at the moment when life slipped away what moved her most was the sight of the sudden serenity and peacefulness that invariably accompanied the passage from one state to another. She has chosen to describe death as “breaking out of a cocoon and emerging as a butterfly.” Our bodies during life represent physical limitations. Without them we are, for the first time, able to soar to heights previously unattainable.
The 19th century Hasidic Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk taught his disciples not to fear death by offering yet another parable. He told them, “Death is just a matter of going from one room to another – and the latter is far more beautiful.”
Perhaps this is what moved Steve Jobs to exclaim “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.” He was describing the indescribable – a vision of a beautiful and wondrous place that will serve as our final home after we are freed from the restrictive confines of our mortal bodies.
His words give us the opportunity to reflect upon death and to conclude that it need not lead to despair – because there is more to life than what we experience here on earth.
That surely makes it worthy of being the quote of the year.