This week’s parashah is once again a double: Akharei Mot, “after death” and Kedoshim, “set apart”, which is what “holy” means in Jewish religious culture.
Because every couple of years these two parashot occur as a double (meaning that we read at least a third of them both), it was only natural that our inquisitive and creative Sages who comment upon and interpret every aspect of Torah should comment upon this too: what do we learn from the juxtaposition of these two parshas, and their names? Are we to understand that after death we are holy? what exactly would that mean?
It’s not a stretch for us to accept the idea that the memory of our beloved dead is holy to us, that is, it is set apart in our hearts in a special place, so to speak. We might even set that memory apart to recall only at special times, such as yizkor, the memorial prayers we recite four times a year (at the Festivals and on Yom Kippur).
When we pause to consider the place of death in Jewish tradition, we discover that other aspects of holiness may come into play. For example, we read in the Talmud that after the Roman massacre of Jews at Betar, we were not allowed to bury the bodies – in this final battle of the third failed Jewish revolt against Rome, they were to be a terrible lesson to the rest of us. The Talmud asserts that years later when we were able to bury the bodies, they had – miraculously – not decayed. This idea of a miraculous preservation is later expressed in connection with a belief in what happened (or didn’t) to the dead bodies of tzaddikim, “righteous ones”, such as great Rabbis. These bodies have become different, set apart in our religious tradition, and therefore, in a way, holy.
But does death itself connote holiness? A dead body carries the quality of making all that come into contact with it tamei, “spiritually unready” to stand in G-d’s presence. It causes one to be “set apart” in that way, and such a one must undergo a ritual process in order to become once again tahor, “spiritually ready”, or what we might call normal, as afterward one does return to normal life.
The place of death in our lives is alternately problematic, fearful, tragic, and inevitable – and sometimes even a blessing. All of us will face it. The Jewish question is how does Jewish learning help me face it? Torah study is able to follow us everywhere. The question is whether we let it in.
Aryeh Ben David, writing for eJewishphilanthropy on February 11, 2015, notes that Jewish learning has been conceptualized as having two primary foci. Now, he suggests, it’s time for a third. The first stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “What do I know?” The second stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “Am I connected to what I know?”
The third stage of Jewish learning asks “How can I bring my learning into my life? How does what I know and my personal connection to this knowledge change me? How is Jewish learning making me a better person?”
2,000 years ago, Judaism instituted the reciting of blessings before eating. The goal of saying a blessing is not only to know the words and meaning of the blessing. The goal of saying the blessing is not only to feel connected to the words of the blessing. The goal of the blessing is ultimately to affect me and transform how I eat.
The test of saying a blessing is whether it changes how I actually eat.
Similarly, the goal of learning Torah is not only to know content, and not only to be connected to what I know.
The test of learning Torah is whether it changes how I actually live.
May your learning change your life and all that touches it for good.
Have you seen the television commercial for heart health that begins with a person very matter-of-factly receiving a note that says “your heart attack is coming tomorrow.” As we know, says the voice-over, such events happen without any warning. If you could know when a life-threatening event would happen, you could prepare for it, dodge it – even, as in our Jewish legends, try to avoid the Angel of Death by changing your name, or heading to the town of Luz (where no one ever died).
This week our reading, the second segment of the parashah according to our Triennial Cycle count, begins with a terrifying declaration: come midnight, all the first born of Egypt shall die. Terrifying, yes, but perhaps some people would like to have such certainty. After all, there’s even a “Death Clock” on the internet. Very appealing, perhaps, to fill in the information it requests – but would you believe the answer?
Our ancestors were aware that they were part of a never ending cycle of life and death; that they, like all that lived and moved, would one day stop living, stop moving. Curiously, ancient Hebrews did not seem to worry so much about life after death – at least, not to the extent that our Torah speaks of it. When our ancestors died, according to our Scriptures, they either had a “good death”, which meant being surrounded by loved ones who cared for and buried the body afterward, or a “bad death”, which meant that one died in agony – of war, disease, famine, and other horrible causes – and that there was no sure burial for the body. A “good death” was indicated by the idiom “gathered to one’s ancestors”, and a “bad death” was expressed by the term “going down to She’ol”. (A helpful site for more information, including what the ancient Hebrews DID believe about life after death, is in the Jewish Encyclopdia: Sheol.)
The fear of death, however, was as powerful for them as it is for us. When would death come? how? when will we be deprived of those we love? In most cases, there is no certainty. Even in our first verse of this week’s reading, there is one tiny letter that hints at the uncertain territory between life and death. In Exodus 11.4 it is literally written: כחצת הלילה – “some time around midnight”. The single letter khaf indicates “sort of”, “almost”, or “about”.
That’s as close as we get in Judaism to the ultimate truth of life and death. That letter khaf stands in between us and the complete, transcendent truth. We cannot know the time of our death, or any of the other things we want to know the most, and the khaf is there to remind us of that.
Don’t let the khaf get you down, though. Consider this tiny message from the Hebrew letter: the letter khaf has the same name as the word “hand”, and a khaf has the numerical values of two tens, that it, two yuds, which designate a Name of G-d. The little khaf that stands between you and death reminds you that you are in the hands of G-d. And no matter where you go, what you fear, or what happens to you when, you can never fall out of the hands of G-d.
I believe passionately that the key to meaningful life is learning. And I am not simply offering you my personal opinion. Our Jewish tradition asserts that if we are open to learning new insights, new perspectives, new ideas all the time – even in situations that don’t seem suited to learning – we can redeem a moment, even one that seems bleak and unforgiving.
This Shabbat we read Hayyei Sarah, “Sarah’s life”. The parashah begins with the death of Sarah, our first Matriarch. Abraham mourns. He must buy a plot of land in which to bury her (until this point he has been a landless nomad). Then we read that Abraham gives some thought to his children’s future at this point, and the parashah ends with the marriage of his soon Isaac to Rebekah, at which point we are told that “Isaac was consoled after the death of his mother Sarah”.
There is so much to learn from this parashah, from Abraham’s experience of Sarah’s death, to the family dynamics and the behavior that ensues, and, finally, the entrance of Rebekah on the scene. It is easy to note that we move in one parashah from death to new life. It has also been noted that Isaac may have some issues with the women in his life, since he was consoled by taking his new wife into his mother’s tent. Maybe a little over-involved with Mom? To be fair, a loving partner is often the key to our ability to overcome grief and go on with our lives.
I ask you to focus with me on something a bit more subtle. If we look carefully at the end of last week’s parashah, we can see that Abraham was living in Be’er Sheva – and Sarah is living in Kiryat Arba, also called Hevron. They are, at best, distanced from each other, perhaps even estranged. (Understandable! after Dad took the only son of the couple out to sacrifice him, without even telling Mom where they were going.) There may have been quite some distance between this couple for quite some time.
But then Sarah died, and Abraham “came to mourn her”. The wording suggests that he had to travel in order to be with her – that he was not near at hand.
Imagine the journey that he took – the distance, not in physical steps, but in emotional stages. Guilt. Sadness. Self-recrimination. The sting of memory. Regret. Resignation. And, finally, steeling himself to see it through.
Abraham arrived at Sarah’s deathbed too late to bid her goodbye, but in time to mourn her. And that, perhaps, was enough of a reconciliation.
On Yom Kippur, if you have wronged someone and s/he has died before you had the chance to beg forgiveness, you are required to go to the grave of that person and ask for it anyway. Not because we believe that you will contact that person in some possible afterlife, but because you need to take the steps Abraham took.
We are all told, “live each day as if it is your last”. On this Shabbat, our parashah seems to be suggesting that we might also want to try our best to live each day as if it was someone else’s last.