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.