I draw a deep breath and put pen to paper. But the words won’t flow. Not yet. I pause for a moment to gather my thoughts. I know I need to prepare an expression of sympathy, to write out a letter of condolence to a friend who has suffered a tragic loss. I want him to know my love, my support, my comfort in this, his hardest hour. I picture the one who lived and then died, who flourished for a time, but who was soon gone like the flowers that fade, like the dust that blows in the wind. And I see once again the fleeting nature of life.
Life is fleeting—fleeting like the dew that settles to the grass in the dark of night, but then burns away with the earliest heat of the morning.
Life is fleeting—fleeting like the leaves of the tree that open in the spring, that catch the light of the sun through the summer, but that fall to the ground in the first cool days of autumn.
Life is fleeting—fleeting like the lily that blooms in the darkness of night, that displays its beauty for a single day, but that by evening fades and wilts away. It is here today but gone tomorrow and its place knows it no more.
Life is fleeting—fleeting like the mist that rises in the cool morning air but is then blown away by the gentlest breeze. It is fleeting like the spring snow that falls from a cold sky but melts the moment it touches the warm ground. It is fleeting like a ship that fades into the distance and sails over the far horizon, fleeting like a train that rushes past with a roar and is gone. Scarcely do we draw our first breath before we draw our last. Scarcely do we open our eyes before we close them once more. Scarcely do we live before we die.
No wonder the Sage says, “If a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity”—vapor, smoke, dust. There is a time to live and a time to die. But the time to live seems so short and the time to be dead so long.
Still I must believe that though life is fleeting, life is precious. Though life is over so soon, it matters so much. For though life ends, it continues, for though we sleep in the dust, we rise again. Time is bound to eternity. Hence, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” It is through life that we prepare for death and through the life we live in this world that we prepare for the life we will live in the next.
So life is precious—precious like the gold that adorned the temple where God’s people went to bow and to worship, to serve and to sacrifice.
Life is precious—precious like the blood spread hastily on the doorposts, the blood of the passover lamb that distinguished Israelite from Egyptian, objects of mercy from objects of wrath.
Life is precious—precious like the jewels upon the High Priest as he entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle blood on the Atonement Seat, to seek God’s favor for another year.
Life is precious—precious like the pearl a merchant found that was of such great value that he sold all that he had to acquire it and regarded it as the best of all bargains. It is precious like treasure hidden in a field, precious like the gates of pearl in the New Jerusalem, precious like its streets of gold.
And so both are true and neither diminishes the other. Life is fleeting and fragile but precious and so very meaningful. Though it is short, it is significant. Though it inevitably ends, it matters so much. Though it is but a blip and a dash, it is of the highest worth.
And with that in mind, I can prepare an expression of sympathy that accounts for both the significance of a life lived and the tragedy of a life lost, for both the sorrow of a life that has ended and the joy of a life that will never end.