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June 26, 2017 - Parashat Hukkat

On the Threshold of Eternity
A Dvar Torah for Hukkat
by Rabbi Len Levin

“He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days…” (Num. 19:11)

For an entire lifetime, one builds up a network of interactions with others in society, a network comprising commerce, family, edifices of knowledge, productive endeavor, life in the public square, a living, breathing complex of order, structure, creative output. When one dies, one takes leave of that world of social interaction and goes on a private journey to we know not where, a mysterious realm where all the bonds of this world are dissolved.

The mourner stands on the threshold of these two realms. Being touched by the recently departed, the mourner feels different. S/he cannot go back to participating at once in the activities of this world as if nothing has happened. S/he must linger a while in the liminal space between this world and eternity, to tarry in the presence of the recently departed and take one’s time savoring memories and stretching out this last good bye.

In ancient Israel, the person who had immediate contact with the dead took on an altered status, tum’ah, variously translated “impurity” or “uncleanness.” For the seven-day period of purification, this person dwelt outside the encampment (see Numbers 5:2–3) and could not approach the sanctuary (19:13,20). In other words, this person (and all would at some time be in that situation) underwent an enforced period of withdrawal from normal social interaction and religious community.

Current Jewish practice observes this period of withdrawal, with modifications. For the seven days starting with the funeral, the members of the mourning family collectively observe a period of home seclusion, receiving visits of consolation from friends and the surrounding community. Normal productive activities are suspended. With the exception of the Sabbath, the mourners do not normally come to the synagogue. The regular routine of religious obligations is suspended entirely between death and burial, to be resumed gradually during the week of mourning and thereafter.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote of the tremendous anxiety that the chaotic death experience arouses in the person who is accustomed to viewing life as an ordered routine: “Authentic Judaism as reflected in halakhic thought sees in death a terrifying contradiction to the whole of religious life. Death negates the entire magnificent experience of halakhic man” (Halakhic Man, 31). On the other hand, the rituals surrounding death create a remedial order to mitigate the chaos: “My father related to me that when the fear of death would seize hold of R. Hayyim [of Brisk], he would throw himself, with his entire heart and mind, into the study of the laws of tents and corpse defilement. And these laws…would calm the turbulence of his soul and would imbue it with a spirit of joy and gladness” (73).

So, too, in ancient Israel’s practice, the rituals of the red heifer and sprinkling the defiled person with the waters of lustration, combining the red ashes with cedar and hyssop, would help restore the order that was disrupted by the ultimate absurdity, the death of a loved one. Over the seven-day period, the person would be guided by the physical rituals to a spiritual purification, navigating the no-man’s land between the realm of the dead and the land of the living, and coming out in the end on the side of affirming life. So do we all, in a similar situation, supported by family, friends, and community, wander in the valley of the shadow of death for the prescribed period but hopefully find our way back again into life.

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Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR.