Days passed and Lazarus’ condition grew only worse. When we had begun to lose any hope of his recovery, someone—I think it was Mary—came up with the idea of trying to contact a traveling preacher who had become known for his ability to heal. His name was Jesus, and he came from (of all places!) Nazareth, up north in Galilee. “Who ever heard of a prophet coming from Galilee?” I had to ask myself. Yet in recent months we had begun to hear all kinds of stories about him enabling lame people to walk, the blind to see and the deaf to hear, even of his turning water into wine at a wedding reception and feeding five thousand people with just a handful of loaves and fish. Passover was not far away, so perhaps he would be coming through these parts anyway.
The two sisters sent off a message as quickly as they could. A day passed, and another, and another. With each of them Lazarus’ condition only worsened until finally the inevitable happened. Lazarus was dead. Martha and Mary were beside themselves. They had done everything they could to help their brother and more. And it had all proved to be of no avail. Somehow it all seemed so wrong that such a good man, who had done so much to enrich the life of our little village, should be taken away from us. Yet what do the Scriptures say?
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
I knew all that in my head. Yet in my heart it seemed wrong. The week of mourning that would now begin, wearing harsh, coarse sackcloth next to the skin, our heads covered, and no shoes to protect our feet from the harshness of the rocky ground, would help to express our sorrow, our feelings of deprivation, and the wrongness that death is. However it would not console us; it would not subtract from our sense of injustice; and it certainly could not bring our beloved Lazarus back.
Like many of the men of Bethany, I shaved off my beard as a visible reminder of the loss that Lazarus was for all of us. For seven days none of us would wash or anoint our bodies or even eat. As Lazarus had been a man of considerable means, professional mourners were hired to chant the traditional dirges. However, their wails were not the only ones heard in Bethany that week. All of us joined in their lament with its shrill, rhythmic choruses of “Alas! Alas!”
If there is one thing we Jews know how to do, it is to mourn. The centuries of pain that are our history have ingrained that into us. I think of the weeping of our ancestors as they labored hard during their cruel years in Egypt—of men who endured the lash as they slaved under the hot sun, of women who lived in constant fear that their infant sons would be put to the sword before their very eyes.
We can still hear the echoes of the cries of those who watched on as our sacred city of Jerusalem and its Temple were torn down stone from stone and burned to the ground by the Babylonians, with thousands being dragged into captivity hundreds of miles away. To this very day we sing the words our poets wrote as they languished there: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion…”
Now we in Bethany found ourselves weeping once again, for dead Lazarus and for his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Or was it for ourselves, and for the deep loss we all felt in the knowledge that Lazarus would be a part of our lives no longer, but only a memory? Never again would we join with him in his laughter, or sit around his table, or hear his words of wisdom, or be the beneficiaries of his innumerable kindnesses. The thought passed through my mind more than once as I helped to carry Lazarus’ body, tightly wrapped in yards of linen and fragrant with pounds of exotic spices, to its resting place just outside the village, as I grunted to help move the heavy stone across the entry to his tomb, and during the days of deep mourning that followed.