Let Kids Know about Death; It’ll Help Them Live

Our parsha discusses the animal sacrifices that were so central to the beis hamikdash.

Our parsha also states that those sacrifices “will … forgive” [1]our sins.

How, though, does this work? How does slaughtering those animals, burning them, and spraying their blood on the altar facilitate that forgiveness?

Such forgiveness certainly isn't achieved through the simple, mechanistic actions of killing and burning animals.

That’s made so very clear by the following castigation: “‘Why do I need your numerous sacrifices,’ says Hashem…. ‘don’t bring me your worthless meal offerings anymore…..[rather] wash yourselves…..remove evil…..learn to do good.”[2] It’s a castigation that’s reiterated: “Does Hashem want Korbanos as much as he wants us to listen to his voice?”[3]

It’s clear, then, that it’s the soul-searching that’s supposed to accompany sacrifices that facilitates forgiveness. It’s also clear that sacrifices bereft of such feelings won’t facilitate forgiveness.

Still, though, if it’s all about feeling why bother with sacrifices? And how indeed, do sacrifices generate those feelings? How do sacrifices evoke soul-searching and self-betterment?

The answer to this question lies in the thought-provoking advice given to individuals who struggle with powerful sinful desires.

What should that person do? How should he squelch that desire?

He should, we’re taught, “remember the day of death.”[4]

Memories of death do, indeed, squelch that desire. And they do that in the following ways.

Firstly, they remind us that our impending deaths will take us from this world to the next. Once in that next world, any illusory “gains” accrued from forbidden acts will be offset, millionfold, by those acts’ damage to our souls. That realization will dampen our evil inclination.

Remembering death also reminds us that we can’t do mitzvos forever. Why not? Because we will die. And the dead can’t do mitzvos because “the dead do not praise you, Hashem.”[5] Those reminders, then, prompt us to do mitzvos while we can – while we’re still alive.

Those remembrances also remind us that the dead can’t right wrongs or repair damaged relationships. That may prompt us to fix wrongs while we can still fix them - while we still live.

And sacrifices, more than almost anything else, provide such reminders of death.

Think, for a moment, about what sacrifices involve. Slaughtering animals. Spraying their blood. Burning their innards. That reminds us, among other things, of how temporary life is. Of how fleeting this world is. And of how our lives must reflect those remembrances.[6]

No, we don’t bring sacrifices today. So sacrifices can't create reminders of death. But other activities can.

How? By visiting our local hospitals and nursing homes.

Visiting such hospitals and nursing homes, in addition to lifting the spirits of those homes’ residents, exposes us to aging, illness, and death. Such visits, then, like sacrifices, prompt us to think about aging and death. Such thoughts can imbue us with a gravitas that can abet good decision-making.

Those visits, then, can help us become better people. And they can help our youth even more.

And that’s because “remembrances of death” are especially important for youth. Why? Because those remembrances counter youth’s sometimes laissez-faire attitudes toward physical and spiritual dangers.

That attitude displays itself in the physical arena - in young people’s disregard for health and safety issues. For a variety of reasons, including their lack of exposure to illness and death, many young people live with a "don't worry” attitude. That allows for fast driving, smoking, and experimentation with other dangerous substances. Exposure to death may cause them to “worry.”

That laissez-faire attitude also displays itself in the spiritual arena.

Youth may foray outside religious constructs without realizing that one bad step can quickly lead to another.

They may commit indiscretions without realizing that life’s brevity may not afford them time enough to reverse their indiscretions.

They may squander spiritual opportunities without realizing that life provides few such opportunities.

Highlighting mortality – and life’s brevity and tenuousness – can foster a more serious, more spiritual attitude.

Because of this, all my years as a pulpit rabbi, I would take our shul youth to visit the aged in our local nursing homes.

These visits helped those homes’ residents by bringing them simcha.

Those visits also helped our youth. It facilitated interactions with the aged that promoted awareness about aging and about life’s brevity.

These visits, which highlighted life’s tenuousness by demonstrating the fragility of the aged, may also curtail some youthful risk-taking.

This is about nursing home visits.

But this isn’t just about nursing home visits.

This is about knowing that people become paralyzed in road accidents. That can help curtail risky driving.

This is about knowing that people die from lung cancer. That may diminish cigarettes’ allure.

This is about knowing about the harmful effects of alcohol, drugs and so much else.

This is about knowing that we’ll eventually die.

Let our children know that.

That will help them live.

[1] Vayikra 1:4

[2] Yeshaya 1:11-17.

[3] Shmuel 1, 15:22

[4] Berachos 5a

[5] Tehillim 115:7

[6] Ramban, Vayikra 1:1

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