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Jewish Journal

Preventing Death

Torah PortionParashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-21:1)

by Rabbi Ed Feinstein

July 10, 1997 | 8:00 pm

One afternoon, as I wheeled my shopping cart down an aisle of the local market, a 3-year-old riding in his mother's cart came up along the other side. He was one of the students in the nursery school, and when he recognized me, his mouth dropped open, he pointed, and he shouted, "Mom, look, it's God!" My young friend's comment is instructive. We imagine God in the image of those who teach us about God. And we perceive the world of religion in the image of those experiences that introduce us to spirituality, ritual and faith.

I remember arriving home from school one afternoon to find my mom cooking a huge vat of spaghetti. "We're going to a shiva minyan," she said. There had been a tragedy in the community: A young father had been killed in an accident. By the time we arrived, the family's small home was crowded with guests. From the synagogue, from work, from the neighborhood, from the children's school -- friends had come to share the grief and to support this family.

They filled the house with conversation and words of condolence. They stacked the counters with casseroles and cakes and baskets of fruit. As the service began, and as "Kaddish" was recited, one could feel the power of the community's will to support and uplift this family. One could feel the healing presence of God.

"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me." Religion does not protect us from death. At one time or another, we all walk in death's shadow. The Psalm promises, however, that we will not be alone. A promise fulfilled by community. The Hebrew word for funeral is levaya, literally "to accompany." We accompany the body to its final resting place. We accompany the soul on its journey. And we accompany the surviving family. We make sure that they don't fall into the grave. We make sure that they return home -- physically and emotionally -- from the cemetery. We fill their home with warmth and light and give them reason to again choose life. We bring the presence of God into the lives of our grieving friends.

This week's Torah portion is about the mystery and tragedy of death. It describes the death of Miriam, of Aaron, and the decree that Moses will die before reaching the promised land. The portion begins with the law of the red heifer -- a special rite that offered purification from the ritual contamination brought on by contact with death. Within the laws of this rite, one fact is significant: Unlike other forms of ritual contamination, which are remedied by immersing oneself in the mikvah, tumat met, the contamination of death, can only be cleansed with the help of another. The defiled cannot sprinkle the cleansing waters upon himself. He needs the saving help of a tahor, an uncontaminated companion, to cleanse him. Contact with death contaminates the soul filling us with fear, with hopelessness, with a sense of the tragic, dark, irrationality of life. It is only with the help of another that I am rescued.

It isn't only the rituals of grieving that rescue us from death's contamination. From a certain perspective, all of Jewish living is an answer to death. A Chassidic commentary on the verse "Zot ha torah ki yamut adam" reads the verse as: "This is the Torah because human beings die."*

The purpose of Torah is to bring eternity into daily life, to enable us to fill each moment with meaning. The Torah's concern is not with assuring life after death, but with preventing death during life, and assuring that we live fully and deeply. The gift of Torah is not an endless life but a life of completeness, of wholeness, of shalom.

* I am indebted to Rabbi Mordecai Finley for this commentary.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

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