Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Death and Downton (Times of Israel)
In Pirke Avot chapter 2, Rabbi Eliezer states:
The honor of your fellow should be as precious to you as your own, and do not be easy to anger. Repent one day before your death.
Here in America, season three of Downton Abbey came to a crashing conclusion last night. For those who haven’t seen it, this entire column is one enormous spoiler, so go check the weather report.
The weather in Downton is perpetually sunny. Even the deaths are sunny – or at the very least, tidy, as if scripted by Rabbi Eliezer. Not that they aren’t tragic, for this year they’ve been the most tragic deaths imaginable: A mother and a father both died on the very day their first child was born. And while neither death was predictable, a second look will delineate certain patterns that made these deaths very Downton-like, emerging from an orderly universe where even the most random of endings can occur only when one’s most complicated life conflicts have been oh-so neatly resolved.
Both Lady Sybil and Cousin Matthew died only after uttering the final “I love yous” that so often in the real world are left unsaid. They said them, and then some. Matthew was a walking Hallmark commercial in recent weeks, waxing so poetic as to leave the otherwise sardonic Mary drained of all her bile. The two marriages were at such blissful states that the only alternative to death would have been lives of saccharine boredom and pedestrian parenting. It’s sad that boring, successful marriages have such a hard time making it on TV.
For both of the victims, all issues of class and money were neatly resolved pre-mortem. Sybil’s ex-chauffer husband Tom was fully welcomed into the family and he was, at last, dressing the part; and Matthew’s grand modernization plan to keep Downton economically viable was finally accepted by his doubting father in law. Matthew’s fertility was no longer in doubt, of course, and mercifully we only had to see Lady Mary deal with the indignities of pregnancy for one episode. It would have been unseemly to see her beg Matthew for pickles or Chinese takeout.
When season four begins, the Downtonites, upstairs and down, will again be decked in black, as custom begs them to do. The tears will be crowned in ritual and the suffering will give way to the basic survival instinct that has propelled the entire enterprise – theirs and ours: Things change, so we’d best change too, while clinging to traditions that strengthen us, family and friends who nurture us, and a steadfast belief (defying all visible evidence) that there is a guiding sense of order to it all.
And, next season, as soon as a relationship appears to have tied up into a neat, uncomplicated bow, with all words of love and forgiveness uttered as Rabbi Eliezer would advise, watch out!