Death, Defeat and the Dangers of Despair

This week’s Torah reading discusses the limited circumstances under which a priest may come into contact with a dead body.

The laws proscribing this particular form of ritual contamination may seem to strange to us, it is hard to see how they could possibly be relevant.

The first thing we notice is that Judaism is not obsessed with death, and does not believe, on the whole, that this world is simply a preparation for an afterlife.  There is talk of Olam Haba, which is often translated as ‘the world to come’, but is perhaps better translated as ‘the world of becoming’.  It alludes to a way of experiencing life that is rich and flowing, infused with energy and inspiration, connected to values and concerns which recharge and nourish it.  This is how Olam Haba is depicted in the Zohar, and I believe it can be read into many other rabbinic uses of the term.

But there is more than that, Judaism seems to have an aversion to death, it wants to keep us distant from its spirit.

We could say that this is a form of denial, that it’s falling prey to the weakness so vividly diagnosed by Ernest Becker in his masterwork the Denial of Death.  Faced with mortality, we flee, we cannot face such hard truths about life, and we embrace distractions and focus on happier thoughts.

But I don’t think this is what’s happening.

It seems to me that we are being given warning that there are moments of crushing defeat in life, moments when all we can feel is the hollowing out of loss, when the dark curtain of despair tries to seduce and envelop us.

This is what is symbolised by death, this is the thing we must not become too contaminated with.

Yes, we must be realistic, we must face the truth, but we must not let death and defeat overcome us, we must not surrender our faith to its indifference.

To do so is to prevent us from achieving anything in life, from bringing about inner and outer change, from doggedly persisting with the endless task of tikkun, of sanctifying and refining the worlds that we inhabit.  For the work is not on us to finish, but we must certainly not waste our time nor evade our responsibilities.

Realism, yes, but in healthy measure, administered like a powerful drug, and whose poisonous dimension we will gradually nurse and encourage out of our system.

For despair is all too easy, particularly in challenging times, and it will not help us, it will not get us where we need to be.

And it seems that the Torah is marking out three levels of warning here.

For the regular Israelite, the average citizen, there is simply the demand for a requisite awareness.  If you have come into contact with death, you should know about it.  You cannot enter the sanctuary, your capacities have somehow been impaired, your spirit is perhaps not best placed to attain its greatest heights, to meet its toughest challenges.

But it is a fact of life, and there is no prohibition against contact with death.  It is part of the fabric of life, the reality of being a person, and we cannot legislate such harsh truths out of existence.  We are not in denial of death.

For the next level of person, the priest, the Kohen, who lives a life more firmly consecrated to higher tasks, a greater level of warning is issued.

They are prohibited from coming into contact with death, they must do everything in their powers to avoid it.  Their work is too sacred, too significant, and the dark shadow of defeat cannot be allowed to cloud their judgment, to sully their spirits, to weigh down on their souls.

‘For how shall we sing the lord’s song in an alien land’, how can we reach the highest heights whilst adrift in the land of sorrow and hopelessness.

There is a sacrifice here, a part of one’s humanity is perhaps being curtailed, but the Torah is suggesting that this is necessary for the good of the greater society, that different people must bear different burdens.  The focus on avodat hakodesh, on the work of elevation, requires a different level of personal consecration.

Only for close relatives, for extremely important and real matters can this bitterness be tasted.  To squander one’s focus and energy on trivial sorrows, on the romance of melancholic absorption, this is not permitted to the priest.

The high priest, the one with ultimate responsibility, he must be even more careful to protect himself, to maintain his near impossible level of spiritual focus and concentration.  For if the leader of the people becomes cut off from the source of hope and life, then the people are wholly exposed, there is no longer any buffer or bulwark to protect them from an annihilating loss of direction.

For the high priest, there can simply be no access to death, its depressive spirit must not be allowed to penetrate.

Not only this, but he must not leave the sanctuary at all, his life must be one of total dedication, of total sublimation.  He is not a realistic or attainable figure, he is simply to exist as a vision for the rest of us, an ideal which inspires us, but which we know that it is not our fate to actually reach.  He is different, he is separated, he is bordering on the otherworldly.

And whilst we might appreciate this tripartite delineation, this mapping out of the spiritual landscape, we might find that it doesn’t entirely speak to our modern sensibilities, to our democratic worldview.

We might however consider that these different levels of spiritual dedication refer to different levels of our personality, different layers of our psyche.  There are the outer parts, the rugged parts, which deal with death and defeat as part of our routine, as part of the cost of doing business.

And then there might be parts which we try to keep a bit more aloof, a bit less accessible.  We sense that these need greater protection, so we do not open them up so easily, we do not rush to expose them in the same way.   We refrain from certain emotional investments.

And then there is our ultimate point, our deepest level, and that is where we know we must be even more vigilant and careful, that there is something there that must not exit its spiritual sanctuary.  For to risk its tarnishing is to risk our very essence, to risk completely losing our way.

We live in challenging times, and there are many many reasons why we might want to give up, why we might let death and defeat dominate our spirit.  But we must look after ourselves, particularly in our most sacred recesses, and we must ensure that we are ready for the next challenge, able to scale the heights when they come into focus once more, able to help generate a new vision of a world perfected by the majesty and sanctity of Divine virtue.

We are not permitted to desist from the task, and we must always be ready to answer its call.

A time for life, a time for death… Berakhot 18

One who has suffered the loss of a close relative, and is waiting to bury them, is exempted from Shema, prayer, Tefillin and any other positive commandments.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Brachot 3:1) helps us understand this.  it reminds us of  Deuteronomy 16:3 – ‘that you may remember the day you came forth from the land of Egypt all the days of your life’ – and deduces that you should remember on the days when you are dealing with life, not on the days when you are dealing with death.

What are being given here is a very clear injunction to think about death, to consider our mortality.

It is hard to gauge quite how much of our mental energy we dedicate to denying our mortality.  To varying degrees we kind of know that we are going to die, but it less clear whether we have really absorbed that insight.

In his phenomenally good book ‘The Denial of Death’, Ernest Becker argues that we repress our knowledge and fear of death.  This in turn leads to us being afraid of all sorts of other things, which the mind substitutes for death.  The unconscious ‘fear’ triggered by death is transferred onto other objects and we consequently spend a lifetime fighting the wrong battles.  We would, he contends, find a much more direct path to contentment were we to stare death in the face, to acknowledge its presence and to accept it.  Our craving for immortality would subside, and we would learn to see more of reality for what it is, helping with our general ability to accept and appreciate our lot.

It seems that the Talmud here is backing up this line of thinking.  In a time of mourning, we will experience a sense of loss, and a part of this loss will be the realisation of how easily our world can be emptied.  Freud describes the experience of mourning thus:

Painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity… In mourning it is the world that has become poor and empty. (Mourning and Melancholia 244-6)

Faced with this abyss, confronted with our deepest fear and the fragility of life, we might think that we would turn to Judaism, to the transitional objects of our practice, as a means to overcome or escape this despair.

No.  Quite simply, this is not the path we are to follow.  The Jewish religion helps to build our sense of life, to enrich it, to alert us to its possibilities.  But it is not given to us to abuse for the denial of our mortality, of our humanity, of the darker side of life.

When circumstances bring death into our path, we must pause and absorb it, we must become fully conscious of it.

And I think there is a more general message here, that Judaism is not given to us to create a falsely sweet and pretty picture of reality.  It is not an escape from the trials and tribulations of life, a point Rav Soloveitchik makes throughout his writings.  Rather, in the opposite direction, it gives us the conceptual and ritual tools to grapple with the murkier and more confusing aspects of reality, sometimes even helping us make contact with them.  In doing so, it allows the unconscious to give expression to them, to symbolise them, and provides some means for containing and absorbing the resultant emotions.

The Talmud proceeds with a narrative of Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yonatan walking through a graveyard where Rabbi Yonatan’s tzitzit were dragging over the gravestones.  Rabbi Hiyya chastised him for this, letting him know that he was insulting the dead.

We then get side-tracked into a huge debate about  whether the dead know things, and what it is that they might know.  We encounter the dead in a number of ‘Six Feet Under’ type scenes and some of the argumentation has to be read to be believed.  (As an aside, whereas everyone watching ‘Six Feet Under’ understands that talking to the dead is a narrative device, an externalisation of an inner dialogue, people reading the Talmud often don’t allow themselves to see things that way.)

But the question of what the dead actually know or feel is irrelevant.  Rabbi Hiyya is rejecting Rabbi Yonatan’s haughty arrogance, his sense of immortality, his lack of respect for death.  ‘Show some consciousness of your mortality Rabbi Yonatan’, that is what he’s telling him.  ‘Respect death as you do the Divine Presence – for both are given 4 cubits in this world.’

There is no greater challenge than finding the balance between the faithful and optimistic spirit we have spoken about in the past, and acknowledging the fragility of our weak and mortal existence.  In the spirit of this paradox the Kotzker Rebbe advised us to carry a piece of paper in each pocket.  One would say ‘The world was created for me’, the other would say ‘Man is nothing but the dust of the earth’.

Being able to live with paradox, to ride the emotional waves generated by their irreconcilability, this is some of what we hope to take from our culture.  In doing so we embrace the spirit of Rabbi Hiyya, understanding when it is the time for life, and understanding when we must give death its space.