Living after death
One of the most famous topics of the double parsha of Chukat and Balak is the Para Aduma, the red cow that, when used correctly, has the power to redeem us from the impurity of death. What exactly the Torah means by the concept of “tuma”, usually translated as “impurity”, is beyond our focus today, but it relates to a spiritual state or experience that isn’t compatible with entering the highest levels of holiness in coming into the area of the Temple.
This is in fact why we are particularly careful about ascending the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, our holiest of all places, and why we usually content ourselves with prayer at the foot of the mountain, at the Kotel. Only one who has undergone various processes of purification may even ascend the Temple Mount, and only one who has been purified from contact with the deceased may enter the place where the Temples themselves once stood.
But I ask you, what’s so impure about death? Of course, death is tragic and a deviation from Hashem’s original plan for the world. We remember the story of Adam and Eve and the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as well as death being far from the ultimate destiny of the world, as we quote at every funeral and shiva house, from Yeshayahu/Isaiah 25:8: “Death will be swallowed up forever, and the Lord G-d will wipe away tears from off all faces”. However, death can also be an honourable end to a good life, a well-earned retirement for a soul who has lived a full existence in this world and is now returning to the World of Truth to bask in the light of Hashem and to be reunited with loved ones who have passed. When death is a good end to a good life, where then is the impurity?
One of the great Hassidic masters, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, also known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe, understood death to be a metaphor for some of the challenges that we encounter in life. Sometimes we’re sad because of a problem that we’re experiencing. This is called “sickness”. At other times, we’re sad because of something that happened that cannot now be changed. This is called “death”. We know what we must do with sickness – we must take all reasonable means to pursue health and engage with the relevant experts, treatments, medications, and recovery schedules until we’re healed. We should also pursue a proactive approach of preventive medicine, leading a life that keeps us strong and healthy. However, death requires a different approach. It’s not about trying to cure it, but finding the right way to move forward. To acknowledge the loss, and live in the new world that contains it.
There are problems in life that cannot be solved, that we must now accept and make peace with in our lives. To get stuck in seeking solutions for these, says the Ishbitzer, is impurity.
May we be blessed with lives of goodness and health, honour, and peace.