There is one subject that we all have to face at one time or another; nobody can escape it and it is probably one of the most difficult things to confront: death. This week’s parsha, Parshat Chukat, deals with the subject of death in practical terms and in philosophical terms as well.
The death of Miriam and Aaron
This week’s parsha, which marks the transition from the beginning of the 40 years in the desert to the end of the 40 years, deals with the death of two of the main leaders of the Jewish people: Miriam and Aaron. During our travels through the desert, we had three main leaders: Moses, Aaron the High Priest, and their sister, Miriam. They were very righteous individuals in whose merit three miracles came to the Jewish people in the desert. The Talmud tells us that in the merit of Moses, manna fell from heaven; in the merit of Aaron, they received the Clouds of Glory that protected them from the elements and from enemy attacks; and in the merit of Miriam, there was a well of water that accompanied them throughout their journey in the desert.
As each of the leaders passed away, the miracle that accompanied the Jewish people in their merit disappeared. Immediately after Miriam passed away, it says the people didn’t have water to drink; the well of water they had received in her merit had disappeared. This brought about the famous incident where Moses struck the rock instead of speaking. After Aaron passed away, the Clouds of Glory disappeared and they were immediately attacked by the King of Canaan who, according to the Talmud, saw that the people were now vulnerable and seized the opportunity.
The difficulty in accepting death
The passing of such great leaders brings sharply into focus that death is something that nobody can escape, not even the great Miriam and Aaron. Although we must understand that this is part of Hashem’s design for the world, it is not always easy.
There is a very moving description of the passing of Aaron. Hashem tells Moses that the time for Aaron to leave the world has come. They go up the mountain and there is the transfer of the clothing of the High Priest from Aaron to his son Elazar, who assumes all of his father’s tasks and duties. Aaron passes away on the mountain and is buried there, and Moses and Elazar descend. The people see that Aaron has passed away and they mourn for their beloved leader who always pursued peace; his passing left a great vacuum.
The Midrash gives us some background to the discussions that took place between Moses and Aaron regarding death. One of the Midrashim comments on verse 25 in chapter 20, where it says: “Take Aaron” up the mountain. How do you “take” another person? The Talmud says that whenever the Chumash uses the word “take” with regard to people, it means to persuade them. The Midrash says that Moses tried to persuade Aaron about the fact that his time had come. He said to him, even though your time has come to leave the world, take comfort in the fact that your son is continuing your work and will now be the High Priest.
Another Midrash says that Moses didn’t know how to tell his brother that the time had come for him to pass away and so he tried to hint it to him. Moses said to Aaron, do you know what it says regarding Abraham? Aaron said, tell me. Moses said it says “you will come in peace to your fathers” (ie, an allusion to his death). Still, Aaron did not get the hint. Then he said to Aaron, if G-d were to say to you after a hundred years that your time has come to leave this world, what would you say? Aaron said, I would say that G-d is the Righteous Judge. Then Moses said, well what would you say if G-d said today your time has come? Aaron said, I would say He is the Righteous Judge. Then Moses said, well, now you have accepted G-d’s judgment. As they ascended the mountain, the Midrash says that G-d said to His angels, when Isaac went up the mountain with his father to go to the Akeida, you were amazed at his willingness to sacrifice himself. Now look how Aaron the High Priest is going up the mountain as well, ready to face death.
What this Midrash is really saying is that for every person, even someone as great as Aaron, the acceptance of death requires courage and fortitude. Every human being has to find the courage to leave this world with dignity and to accept the decree of Hashem at the moment when the time comes. This is difficult for any human being to do and it requires a special greatness.
The purification process of the red cow
At the beginning of the parsha, we find an introduction to the topic of death with a special law that is called the parah adumah, the red cow. It is the purification process for someone who comes into contact with a dead body. There are many laws in the Torah regarding the spiritual halachic concepts of tum’ah and tahara, purity and impurity. These laws are primarily applicable in Temple times when we would bring sacrifices; anyone who became tamei was not allowed into the precincts of the Temple and could not eat the special holy foods of the sacrifices.
One of the primary sources of tum’ah, the halachic definition of impurity, is a dead body. A dead body is impure from a spiritual halachic point of view. (This is why, to this day, Kohanim are not allowed to come into contact with a dead body. At funerals, Kohanim stand to the side, don’t go near the graves and don’t enter the room where the coffin is – unless they are immediate family members of the deceased, in which case the Torah provides an exception; where they are immediate family members, it is in fact a mitzvah to deal with the dead body and even come into contact with it, but generally, a Kohain is not allowed to come into contact with a dead body.) In Temple times, if a person did become tamei, they had to go through a purification process in order to be allowed to re-enter the Temple.
The procedures performed in the Temple are very spiritual, symbolic concepts that are not easy for human beings to understand. In fact, Rashi, at the beginning of the portion, says there is so much of Torah law that is above human understanding. We always try to attribute reasons for things and G-d wants us to delve into these laws to draw the maximum lessons from their symbolism, but we must realise that these laws are founded on the deepest spiritual concepts and laws of the universe that cannot be understood in their entirety by human beings.
The purification process is one such example. A red cow is slaughtered, and then burned to ashes that are then mixed with water. This solution is sprinkled on the tamei person. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of our great commentators from the 19th century, gives a fascinating explanation of the symbolism of the red cow, which gives us an understanding of death and an acceptance of it as part of life.
The combination of body and soul
Rabbi Hirsch explains that there are many aspects of death that make it difficult for us to deal with. One of those aspects is that it shatters our faith in human ability and the supremacy of the soul. G-d commands us to do things, and often the body does not want to do the things we know we should – keeping kosher, giving charity, getting up for shul. The body is sometimes forced to do things that it does not want to do, because the soul controls it. The constant clash between body and soul is part of human nature.
There is a blessing of thanksgiving that we say after using the bathroom and, at the conclusion of it, we say umafli la’asot “the human creation is wondrous”. The Rama, Rav Moshe Isserlis, explains that the wondrous nature of the human creation is the fact that body and soul – two separate substances – are combined into one. But they are not equal: Judaism is predicated on the belief that ultimately the soul can enforce its will and the will of G-d on the body. Every human being has the capacity to be a free agent and choose good over bad.
Death, however, shatters this belief. It seems that, ultimately, death overpowers the human being; it is so powerful that it brings down even righteous people like Miriam and Aaron. Death shakes our faith, and that, says Rabbi Hirsch, is the tum’ah, the impurity. The impurity is caused by the belief that we do not really have free will and that the soul cannot really dominate the body. He says the whole procedure of the red cow is to re-establish our faith in the power of the soul. The red cow, which represents the physicality of the human body, is slaughtered, representing the death process. It is burned and then a solution is prepared from “living water”, which means it has to be fresh water, and the ashes from the red cow. The water symbolises the soul, and the ash represents the body. When the ash is put into the water, it is jumbled and then after a while the ash sinks to the bottom. That, says Rabbi Hirsch, is the process of human life. We start off as a soul with G-d, like pure, clean water. We come into this world, into a physical body, and life is turbulent and mixed up; the body and the soul constantly spar with each other. Although it seems that at death the body defeats the soul, in truth the body sinks to the bottom and the soul rises above the body. Death looks like the destruction of the person, but it is really only the destruction of the person’s physicality. The neshama, the soul, lives on. It rises above the body and returns to G-d.
The supremacy of the soul
Rabbi Hirsch explains that we can think of ourselves as a body which happens to have a soul or as a soul which happens to have a body. Judaism maintains we are a soul that is clothed in a body, and that ultimately that soul has the freedom to dominate the body and to do the right thing. Our task in life is to be able to strengthen the neshama within us, and elevate the body. The body is not ignored, but uplifted to the service of G-d.
This is why the mixture of water and ash, which represents the body and the soul, is sprinkled on the person who is impure on the third day and on the seventh day. The third day parallels the third day of creation, which was the day a large part of the physical world was created – the plants and the earth. The seventh day represents the seventh day of creation, the spiritual dimension of the world. The human being is made of a physical part and of a spiritual part. Hence, together with the red cow different plants were burned: the hyssop and the cedar. The hyssop is a tiny bush, the cedar tree is huge. Different dimensions of the physical world – the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom – are all burned together, representing that the physical forces need to be subjugated to Hashem.
We have the capacity to transcend the limitations of the physical world and to sanctify it to the service of G-d. This is all part of the purification process that we go through in order to regain our sense of confidence that death is not the end but merely a transition and that the soul is immortal. While the soul is in the body it has the capacity to elevate the body and the power to do the right thing – to be generous, to give charity, not to speak lashon hara, to keep kosher and to keep all the laws G-d requires us to keep. We have to believe in the greatness of the soul that G-d has placed within us and the power of the soul’s freedom to choose to do the right thing. When we do, we see death for what it is; it does not destroy the person entirely. Miriam and Aaron went to a higher level of existence; they were not destroyed. The body turns back to dust but the soul continues to live on. Sometimes the body overcomes us, but we have the freedom to decide that the soul is the guiding force in our lives and to live according to the precepts and principles G-d has given us in His Torah.