Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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When someone dies, it’s not only that person dies, is it?

That person’s relatives and friends also die with him.

Those relatives and friends die in the numbing depression that prevails among the bereaved - a depression seen in the fact that 40% of the recently bereaved can be classified as “clinically depressed.”[1]

Such depression deadens positivism. That, in turn, causes a pseudo-death by hampering drive, ambition and “life.”

That pseudo-death may be the reason for the “tumah” restrictions that are applied to those who are exposed to death.

Those restrictions proscribe “tamei” people from entering the sanctuary,[2] from eating holy food[3] and from engaging in “holy” acts. We are also obligated to discard “tamei” holy foods and to purify “tamei” holy utensils.

The “tumah” rules that governed cohanim were even more restricting. Cohanim weren’t just proscribed from engaging with holiness while “tamei.” Cohanim – likely because of their constant work in the mikdash – were even proscribed from becoming tamei in the first place through any exposure to death.[4]

Yes, we shield all things holy from all things “tamei.”

Why? Because, death – which creates “tumah” - dampens and depresses whatever it touches. Given that, letting “tumah” interface with holiness may dampen the glory of that holy item or that holy place. And we dare not dampen holiness.

Any tamei person must, therefore, purify himself before he interfaces with holiness. Once purified, he’ll be allowed to re-engage with a holiness that he can now maximize.[5]

Yes, death deadens something within us.

We recognize that and live accordingly.

Death, though, also enlivens something within us.

Indeed, we read: “better visit a house of mourning than visit a house of celebration because …it… gives thought.” [6]

By suggesting that we seek out a house of mourning’s “thoughts,” we are also noting mourners’ thoughts are beneficial.

And death and mourning do generate many beneficial thoughts. They generate thoughts about life’s brevity – and of the need to use that brief time wisely. They remind us to not focus on material acquisitions and material pleasures because death will eviscerate everything material.

Yes, thoughts of death can be beneficial. That is why the following poem encourages us to keep death in mind. “Let man remember all the days of his life that he is being led to death. Stealthily he journeys on, day after day; he thinks he is resting, like a man who is motionless on-board ship, while the ship flies on the wings of the wind.”[7]

Yes, death enlivens something within us.

We must recognize that and live accordingly.

Death, then, is a double-entendre. It’s saddening. And it’s uplifting. It’s soul-deadening. And it’s thought-provoking. And this double-entendre may explain the enigmatic “red heifer” ceremony that reverses “tumah.”[8]

That ceremony involved a young, red heifer that never performed any labor of any sort. The heifer’s youth and bright red color symbolize vibrant life. The fact that this heifer never worked symbolizes unrealized potential.[9]

That heifer is taken and slaughtered and then burned into ash. This act may symbolize the tragedy of life becoming the “dust of death.”

The heifer’s youthful age and red vibrant color only exacerbate the tragedy of death.[10]

The heifer’s ashes are then mixed with “living waters.”[11] Those living waters symbolize life, growth and positivism. Mixing those ashes with water symbolizes watering - and enlivening – death; reengaging with life after death.[12]

That death-ash also reminds us - as noted before - of other things. Of a brevity of life that demands that we use all of life's moments wisely. Of the folly of focusing on the fleeting material. Of so much else.

Yes, thoughts about death deaden the soul.

And yes, thoughts about death enliven the soul.

It’s the dance of death.

It’s also the dance of life.

Rabbi Weber is founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org, to sign up for his weekly email message or for information on his live or zoom shiurim. Rabbi Weber will be scholar in residence at the Honor’s Hudson Valley Resort for Sukkos. For information, please email or call (845) 794-6000

[1] Psychiatric Times, July 2008

[2] Bamidbar 19:13

[3] Bamidbar 18:11

[4] Vayikra 21:1

[5] Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, Bamidbar 19, 17

[6] Koheles 7:2

[7] Collected Poems of Moshe ibn Ezra

[8] Bamidbar 19:1-22

[9] Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, Bamidbar 19:17

[10] Ibid.

[11] Bamidbar 19:17

[12] Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch loc. cit.

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