Psalm 31: Like a Lost Vessel


By Rabbi Chanan Morrison


Hunted by his enemies, David felt betrayed and alone:

"I am forgotten from the heart like a dead person. I have become like a lost vessel." [Ps. 31:13]

Why did David express his feelings of isolation and loneliness as being like a "lost vessel"? In what way are the dead like lost objects?

Twelve Months to Forget

The Sages inferred from this verse that our ties to our loved ones are similar to our ties to our possessions. When an object is lost, it takes a year before one loses all hope of regaining it. So too, "the dead are not forgotten from the heart until twelve months have passed" [Brachot 58b]. As a result, the Sages taught that when meeting a friend after an absence of a year, we should recite the blessing, "Blessed is the One Who revives the dead." For us, it is as if our friend has come back to life.

Obviously, we remember those whom we love even after a year has passed; but the pain of loss is primarily felt during that first year. What function do these heartrending emotions of grief and mourning serve? Would it not be better if we could immediately reconcile ourselves to the loss, without having to undergo a lengthy process of bereavement?

Hope to Regain

If a certain trait is ingrained in the human soul, Rav Kook wrote, it must have some basis in reality. There must be some aspect of the world - if not in its current condition, then in its future, repaired state - that is reflected by this characteristic of the soul.

Rav Kook's bold conclusion: if death were truly a case of irrevocable loss, a situation that can never be corrected, then we would not mourn the passing of those we love. It would serve no purpose. The very fact that these feelings of profound misery and loss are a universal aspect of human nature indicates that death is not an immutable state.

The psalm's comparison of the dead with lost articles reinforces this conclusion. When we lose an object, why don't we immediately give up hope of recovering it? Because we know the lost object still exists, we just don't know its precise location. In fact, it is this very sense of loss that spurs our efforts to search for and recover it. These very feelings are often the cause for the object's return.

Resurrection of the Dead

The lengthy period of bitter loss following the death of a loved one indicates that, for humanity as a whole, the future promises a remedy for death. Unlike lost vessels, however, this process will be through Divine means. As it says, "Then you will know that I am God - when I open up your graves and lead you up out of your graves" [Ezekiel 37:13]. Nonetheless, since this cure will ultimately come to pass, even now we view and experience death, not as a common occurrence to be accepted as a natural and expected event, but rather like the loss of a highly prized object that we still hope to recover.

A lost vessel is not truly gone from the world. It is only missing with regard to its owner, and it may yet return to him. Even with the passage of time, as the ties between owner and object are weakened, the article still exists. Future generations may continue the search to recover the lost objects of earlier times.

So too, the lengthy time that the soul aches for that which appears unrecoverable is indicative that there is indeed hope. Thus the prophets foretold a future era when the dead will be resurrected: "Your dead will come to life, my corpses will rise up; awaken and sing, you who dwell in the dust" [Isaiah 26:19].

[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. II, p. 304]

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