Judaism and the Fear of Death

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Chukat, deals with the subject of death. One of the great leaders of the Jews, Miriam, sister of Moshe and Aaron, perishes at this point. The Torah does not mention any elaborate funeral or mourning process in conjunction with this event, as it does by Moshe and Aaron. Perhaps she was a Nisteret, someone who lives a completely righteous existence in a hidden, anonymous manner.

In general, people of great spiritual accomplishments are discovered and come to be known by their society. But in our history, there have been men and women of exceptional dedication who remained unknown. Perhaps this was the case with Miriam; or maybe she was simply overshadowed by her exemplary and famous brothers?

Rather, the Torah pays tribute to her by connecting her death to the sudden absence of water. “And the People settled in Kadeish; Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation; and they gathered against Moshe and Aaron” (BaMidbar 20:1-2).

The Rabbis deduce that this loss of their water supply was associated with the death of Miriam. They assert that the miraculous presence of ample water in the wilderness was due to the merit of Miriam’s righteousness. Her very presence among them placed the Jews on a higher spiritual plane, in which they were deserving of miracles. But with her passing, the level of the nation slipped.

A major theme of this Parsha is the subject of death and its religious consequences. Contact with a human corpse or even being in the same room with a dead body places one into a state of “ritual impurity” know as Tumaah. Today all Jews are in this state with no way of removing it.

Our Parsha describes the manner in which one could purify himself from a state of ritual impurity. A special Red Heifer was slaughtered and burned. Its ashes were mixed with spring water, which was then sprinkled on the impure person. The amount of time needed to transition from an impure to a pure state was seven days. He would be sprinkled on the third and seventh days and then immerse himself in a Mikvah; when the sun went down on the seventh day, he would be completely Tahor (pure).

With the destruction of the Temple, we lack the means to effectuate purification from the state of ritual impurity. However, that does not create any particular challenges to our religious observance. The main consequence of Tumah is that it prevents the Kohanim from performing the service in the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple). Since we do not have the Temple at present, there is no need for the Kohanim to be in a pure state. When the Temple Service is restored in the Messianic Era, the Ashes of the Red Heifer will again be prepared, the Kohanim will be purified and the Temple Service will resume.

However, the question arises, why is it that contact with a corpse prevents a Kohen from performing the Temple Service? In fact, it is considered a great Mitzvah to provide for the needs of the deceased, such as preparation of the body for burial and the actual interment. Demonstrating respect for the corpse is regarded as a very significant act of compassion. It therefore appears strange that the immediate effect of such action is to disqualify someone from ministering in the Beit HaMikdash.

In my opinion, death plays a significant role in man’s religious disposition. Man recoils from the notion that his life will be terminated and harbors within himself a desire for immortality. Very often he turns to religion in the hope that it can solve his dilemma concerning death.

Virtually every religion has a doctrine concerning life after death or what it refers to as “heaven” or “hell”. Most non-religious people will attend Synagogue in order to recite Kaddish, and on those occasions when memorial prayers for the deceased are uttered. They are convinced that, one way or another, these actions have an effect on enabling one to overcome death.

Judaism asserts that man’s existence is not concluded with death. It maintains that the soul of man is not physical and survives the body, and if the person has been righteous, enters a state of bliss which is beyond our current comprehension to describe.

However, Judaism does not want our service of Hashem to be based on our fear of death. We should keep the Torah because of our realization that this is the life that Hashem has intended for us to live. It, therefore, is the best way of life and brings us perfection in this world, while at the same time rendering us fit to inherit the world to come.

It is, in my opinion, because of this that the Kohen cannot perform the Service when he has been in contact with death. The true service of Hashem should not be tainted with any appearance of being a reaction to human demise. It should rather be performed out of a sense of optimism and joy and valued as an end in itself, not a means to ward off that which man fears the most. May we merit to be as those who, like Miriam, serve Hashem out of love.

Shabbat Shalom

Dear Friends,

My newest book, Eternally Yours: G-d’s Greatest Gift To Mankind on VaYikra was recently published, and is now available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09SHRXS3Q

I hope that my essays will enhance your reading and study of the Book of VaYikra and would greatly appreciate a brief review on Amazon.com.

—Rabbi Reuven Mann