Death and the Living

Parashat Hukat

July 15, 2016

Parashat Hukat displays exquisite sensitivity to aspects of the impact of death on the human psyche.

The parashah opens commanding that the people separate a red cow [parah adumah] to ritually purify a person who has come into contact with a dead body. The Torah commands:

Numbers 19:3

And you shall give it [the parah adumah] to Elazar the Priest and he shall take it outside of the camp and he shall slaughter it before him.

The Talmud notices an anamoly in the text, and exploits that to drive home how distracting death is. The priest must focus exclusively on sacrificing the animal.

B. Yoma 42a

"and he shall slaughter it before him." Why does it say, "before him?" [of course it's before him. Where else could he slaughter it?] [It means] that he not become distracted from it [that he focus exclusively on the sacrifice and nothing else].

And why would he not? Why might a person about to offer a sacrifice to ritually purify Jews who have touched a dead body become distracted? For the same reason that the rest of us avoid the subject of death? For the same reason that perhaps you asked youself if you really wanted to read about this subject? Why does a person who has touched death feel the need to be ritually purified in the first place? It's because of the power of life and the mystery that is death. Suddenly, in an instant, the life-force is gone, and anyone who has been present at at a death knows the awe of the moment, when a living body loses its inherent vitality.

The Torah Temimah comments on this very point:

Torah Temimah

The word "before him" is extraneous. It's simple that when the sacrifice is offered it's before him. Therefore the interpretation is that his mind must be focused on it during the entire sacrifice.

The core of the reason that sacrificing another sacrifice at the same time makes the Parah Adumah unfit is that a person cannot concentrate on two things at once, and he becomes distracted.

Part of the power within life itself compels us to look away from death, to avoid the subject, to sense, like walking near a high voltage electrical current, that there's an overwhelming and mysterious unseen force that can both give and take life.

In the very next Bible chapter, Miriam, Moses' sister and a prophet in her own right, dies.

Numbers 20:1-2

All of the congregation of Israelites came to the Wilderness of Zin, in the first month. The people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and she was buried there.

The Talmud teaches that the Israelites possessed a constant water supply in the Sinai Wilderness during the 40 year sojourn, a well that accompanied them, credited as a divine reward for Miriam's goodness. The righteous bring reward to their people.

B. Moed Katan 28a

"Miriam died there." It is taught by a Tanna: Rabbi Ami said, "Why is the story of the death of Miriam attached to the story of the Red Heifer [Parah Adumah]?" To say to you, "Just as the Parah Adumah atones [for becoming ritually defiled by exposure to death], likewise the death of the righteous atones."

Death conveys an unease, an intuition of sinfulness and unapproachability. Something has gone wrong, and steps must be taken to rectify the situation, to restore the former order. The Torah commands a red cow be sacrificed, and its ashes ritually used to purify the person who touched death.

All human death mystifies us, particularly the death of the righteous. "If this can happen to them, certainly it will happen to me," we think. The death of the righteous reminds us of our vulnerability, but also of the redemption of our death.

Torah Temimah

The meaning of "the death of righteous persons atones" and the reason for it is not explained. It's possible to say that the intention of the matter is according to what is written in Pirkei d'Rabi Eliezer 17 in the matter of the death of King Saul about which it is written (II Samuel 21) "And they buried Saul's bones and God responded to the land afterward and because the Holy One Blessed be God saw that they showed him [Saul] lovingkindness [hesed] (that they fasted, and cried and eulogized him, as clarified there), immediately God was filled with mercy, as it is said, "And God responded to the land afterward." It becomes clear from this that it's not the death itself that atones, rather it's the grief and the honor that they display in the death of the righteous, because that honor is honor shown to God.

Torah Temimah clarifies that acts of kindness regarding the deceased: eulogies, expressions of grief like crying and fasting, actually ease the impurity that we feel. God will look kindly on a person who eulogizes the deceased for the commandments that person has kept, like giving tzedakah, because that is actually praising God, the source of the commandments.

As much as death pains those who remain, causes a sense of dis-ease and uncleanliness, we possess antidotes: focusing on the death and its aftermath, praising the righteous acts of the deceased, mourning aloud and expressing our grief. Death will sting us to the core of our being, and demands rituals, but the focus of those rituals can move us beyond death of our beloved to recovery and renewal of life.

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© 2016 by Rabbi Mark H. Levin.