“The Sages taught: Three sounds travel from one end of the world to another, and these are: The sound of the sphere of the sun, and the sound of the crowds of Rome, and the sound of the soul at the moment that it leaves the body. And some say: even the sound of a woman giving birth.”
BT Yoma 20b
A few weeks ago, a hoax traveled the blogosphere. Rapper Kayne West said, "I am the next Nelson Mandela," He claimed, "By the time I'm 95, I'm going to be a bigger hero than he ever was.” West never said these remarks. They were in a satirical article about him. How does gossip like this make its way around the world? It may have something to with the fact that West, in other settings, compared himself to God, Andy Warhol, Shakespeare, Picasso, and Walt Disney - an impressive list of influencers where Mandela could have feasibly been located.
Lots of sounds travel around the world. Gossip is one such noise. In the Talmudic passage above, three strange sounds go across the globe: the sun, crowds in Rome and death.
The sun does not make a sound, but as it travels across the sky, we see it as a huge star that controls the way time and tides work in our world. Rome was an ancient political authority that stretched across the world; the bustle in its streets making it appear as the center of the universe. Both the sun and Rome in this curious statement seem to be dominant forces, but the Maharsha [1551-1631: Polish Talmud scholar R. Samuel Eidels] eludes to the fact that Rome’s power did not last forever because just as the sun disaapears, Rome’s power was also “eclipsed.”
The Talmud is prone to exaggeration, a term called “guzma” in Aramaic. But on the last sound – the sound of the soul leaving the body - perhaps there is a profound kernel of truth that still resonates for us today. People of greatness are not often ready to leave this world. There is still something to do. The heart protests at the thought of non-existence. Research tells us that high-achievement types struggle more with their mortality. We turn to the Bible’s pages to hear Moses’ anguished cries to God to let him live and cross into the Promised Land.
Poet Dylan Thomas captures this fight to the end in one of this most beloved poems:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
The sound of death in the Talmud may not only be that of the dying man or woman. It may be the sounds that stream across the world in sadness at losing someone of greatness. This week, we heard those sounds. News reports of Nelson Mandela’s death are those sounds: the vigils, the multi-page editorials, the despair that a leader like him has left us and can no longer continue work that still needs to be done.
Last Thursday, I woke to news that a beloved rabbi of my youth had died, Rabbi Ezra Labaton of the Magen David Synagogue in West Deal, New Jersey. He was a scholar, a leader, a devoted servant to his community and his reach was far and wide. That afternoon, I learned that Nelson Mandela had died. The day ached with loss, the loss of extraordinary people who – each in his own universe – were a force for good. Celebrities may make the paper. But years of service to others and to the great causes of our day, make a life worth remembering.
The sages, the Talmudic passage continues “asked for mercy so that the sound of the soul at the moment it leaves the body would no longer be heard. God eliminated it.” If people were preoccupied by sounds of death, they could not live. God in an act of mercy stilled the sound.
I believe those sounds are still here when a person of greatness leaves the world. We cry out in pain, and we cry out in wonder: who will lead us?
But the Talmud does not end there. It ends with one last sound: the sound of a woman giving birth. The natural first reading is that the cry a woman belts out at this time can be heard around the world. Having given birth to four, I can still hear that sound. But maybe that is not a deep or hopeful enough reading. Maybe it is the cry of the child, not the mother. It is the cry of potential. It is the way a child says, “I have arrived in this world. Pay attention to me. Nurture me. Love me. And maybe I will be the next one to do great things in the world.”