Sunday, June 29, 2014

Death means separation

 Angel of Death
Job 14:1-2“Mortals, born of woman,
    are of few days and full of trouble.
  They spring up like flowers and wither away;
    like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
The fear of dying is a natural part of our human nature that it turns almost everyone white and trembling. Those who have tried to defy death are yet to discover a suitable place to hide. Once discovered, it would become the most expensive and sought-after real estate in the universe.

Speaking about death, most commonly we are referring to the separation of our body from the soul. In Jewish, Islamic and Sikh traditions, Archangel Azrael - the Angel of Death, separates the body and soul at the moment of death. He is described as a holy Archangel completely devoted to the service of God, who also maintains the book of life and death.

The Midrash, stories told by Jewish rabbinic sages, contain numerous interesting stories about King David and Solomon. One such story narrates the story of King David trying to prolong his life by studying Holy Scripture - will reserve that story for another time. Today we will look at a similar one, and let's gain little insight into the Jewish prayer - Shema.

The Shema is the central prayer in the Jewish prayer-book, and is often the first section of a Scripture that a Jewish child learns. Orthodox Jews cover their eyes with their right hand and recite each word of Shema carefully. Shema is recited at least twice daily - once in the morning and once in the evening.

Shema means "hear" and has three parts. The first part is taken from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. It is also known as the prayer, "Hear, O Israel."

Shema Part I
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.

Jesus grew up as a Jew reciting Shema. When He was questioned by one of those scribes about the greatest commandment, Jesus pointed towards this very Shema. We read that incident in Mark 12:28-30.
Mark 12:28-30 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
Those interested can read up Shema Part II and III from Deuteronomy 11:13-29 and Numbers 15:37-41 respectively.

In Jewish tradition, it is believed that the Angel of Death will not approach one while reciting the Shema. Here is a story about a man named Meir

Once there was a town whose inhabitants were pious and had faith in God. Not one of them used to save, not even a penny, because they said, "We must eat and drink today, and as for tomorrow, we will trust in God." Therefore there was not a rich man among them.

One of the inhabitants, named Meir, was a watchman. He carried out his work diligently and wholeheartedly. But he had an evil wife, and she did not trust in God. Day and night she used to nag her husband, "Let us save money for our old age." But Meir always answered, "I trust in God, so we should not be afraid."

The woman was barren, and since they had no children, she was very concerned about their old age. "Who will sustain us tomorrow?"

"Confidence in God's power is a great thing," her husband used to say. "So do not fear."

The Almighty, blessed be he, looked on and said to the Angel of Death, "Go and fetch the soul of Meir from the town of my faithful ones, because he no longer trusts in me."

When Meir returned from work, the Angel of Death awaited him, disguised as a porter and carrying two sacks of flour. He said to Meir, "A rich man sent me with flour for the inhabitants of this town; so you distribute it, but forego your own portion:"

Meir did as he was bidden. He wept from house to house with the flour. However, the inhabitants refused to accept it saying, "Today we have food, and as for tomorrow, we trust in God."

Meir returned to the porter and related all that had happened. The porter disclosed the truth: that he was the Angel of Death and had come to take away Meir's soul because he no longer had faith in God. Meir pleaded with the angel, "Promise not to take away my soul until I have prayed the Shema prayer: `Hear, O Israel."'

The Angel of Death agreed and said, "I shall be damned if I take your soul before you have prayed the `Hear, O Israel."'

Meir began the prayer but interrupted it and said, "I shall be damned if I ever complete this prayer." The angel realized that Meir had deceived him; whereupon he disappeared.

Meir related to his wife everything that had happened. She said, "Come, let us escape from the Angel of Death to another town." And so they did.

After some time the Angel of Death disguised himself as a rich man. He went to the same town and asked if he could be a guest in Meir's home. The town notables informed him, "This Jew, Meir, is a poor fellow. There are many benevolent and rich people who would like to entertain you. Would you not prefer their hospitality?"

However, the guest would agree to stay with no one else but Meir. The couple was very pleased with the guest, who did not spare money on their account.

Whenever Meir prayed, the rich man listened to him. He noticed that every time Meir reached the prayer "Hear, O Israel," he used to skip the end, and never once did he complete it. So it went on day by day.

One morning Meir's wife entered the rich man's room to awaken him, as was her daily custom. Imagine her shock when she saw that he was dying. Hastily she went to call her husband, "Come quickly to recite `Hear, O Israel' over the dying man. Then we shall bury our guest in secret, and all his wealth will remain with us." At first Meir refused to fulfill his wife's request, but at last he gave in to her pleading and nagging.

Meir finished the Shema prayer, and the Angel of Death jumped out of his bed and seized his soul.

God is in charge of the universe and He is the One who decides the time of birth and death. No matter what we do to prolong our lives, they are futile. While it totally makes sense to diet and exercise to prolong life according to medical science, God does not seem to place much emphasis on those aspects. The Angel of Death will arrive at that appointed time, and will separate soul from the physical body.

Death does not mean cessation; it only means separation. There are at least three types of death, which we come across in the Holy Bible.

Death # 1
We read about the first death taking place in the Garden of Eden.
Genesis 2:16-17 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
The iniquities of Adam & Eve did not cause their physical death; instead they were separated from God.

Death # 2
The second death is our physical death - the one which we most commonly refer to, when our soul is separated from our body. Bible refers to this separation as death too.
James 2:26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
When we hear Jesus narrating the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, we are told about Lazurus' soul resting in Abraham's bosom. At death, the soul does not cease to exist, rather it only separates from the physical body and advances to the next place.

Death # 3
The most serious death Christians should be worried about is Eternal death - the everlasting, never-ending final separation from God, which at least some of us will encounter.

Those who remain in their sin and disobedience, leading wicked lives by rejecting God and the Gospel are headed towards that "Lake of Fire" which burns forever and ever. Apart from Revelation 20, which speaks about this "Lake of Fire" where the wicked endure punishment and torment, few other scriptures point in the same direction:
Matthew 25:46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
2 Thessalonians 1:9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. 
Jude 1:7 In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.
We cannot do anything to change those first two deaths. However, we still have a choice about facing 'eternal death' and that choice is purely ours - whether to be separated from God in eternity, or to stay with Him at His mansion forever and ever.