Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
Our culture is one of robust debate. Hardly a topic is left undisputed by our sages. One of the central debates across Jewish history was that of withdrawal or engagement.
Should the Jew be engaged in the material world, actively seeking to better society and environment or should we withdraw and immerse in secluded study and deep meditation. Both approaches are forms of bringing light to the world, one is active, the other passive.
All agree that the end goal of life is not physical pleasure and indulgence. Our sages merely debated whether it is possible to live in this world, but be completely withdrawn from it, living in the ivory tower of Torah study and sublimation or does human nature require that we work, live and play in this world, but do so for holy and noble purpose.
Our sages concluded the debate with a reflection. Many have tried the withdrawal path and failed. Many have tried the engagement path and succeeded.
The path of withdrawal is clearly reserved for the loftiest and holiest souls, but as King Solomon, the wisest of men, wrote, “There is a time for everything.” Even those, who cannot support a lifetime of spiritualism, are summoned to the occasion when they encounter the profoundest moment of life, the passing of a loved one.
Defilement of Death
Jewish ritual law dictates that a Jewish body becomes a vessel for distinct ritual defilement at the time of passing. There is an inverse scale of sanctity in life to the degree of impurity after life. Vegetation, which show little sign of life, do not defile when they are harvested. Birds, which show greater signs of life, are somewhat impure upon death. Animals, which exhibit even greater signs of life, ritually defile those who carry or touch them. The human cadaver ritually defiles all who come under their roof.
The greater the soul, the more its absence is felt upon passing. The soul’s task is to sublimate the body and render it an instrument for G-d. Whether through withdrawal or engagement, we must live a soulful, G-dly life. For the vast majority this is nearly impossible. We all slip up on occasion and indulge in G-dless and self centered pursuits. At times we even slip into decadent and sinful behavior.
On such occasions, rather than serving the soul, the body commandeers little bits of the soul, which remain trapped in the body even after passing unless we repent properly. When intense sanctity is recruited to decadence it becomes extremely unholy, rendering it impure after passing. The holier the soul the more debased it grows upon corruption, which is why the human cadaver is most impure. On the other hand, truly righteous Jews, who don’t sin and leave no soul fragments behind, don’t defile.
On the occasion of a love’s one’s passing, we are meant to reflect on the purpose of life and strengthen our wholesome bond with G-d. Though our vast majority belongs to the class that cannot fully withdraw from material life, on the occasion of a loved one’s passing, we take note of the impurity left in the body by virtue of their weaker moments and realize that there are dangers and spiritual pitfalls in the path of engagement. It is easy to be distracted by the bustle of life and forget our purpose.
Part of the reason we engage in the practice of Shiva, in-house mourning for seven days, is to withdraw from life for a short while and reconnect with our purpose. We cannot maintain this posture for long and recognize that we will eventually return to our norm, but we break with routine for a while to remember why we live it in the first place. We take stock and realize that those who skate on thin ice must be properly tethered. Shiva is the time to tether ourselves to life’s spiritual and noble purpose.
The Soul Returns
The bits of soul trapped in the body remain imprisoned until the body decomposes and returns to the dust from which it has come. When the body decays, the soul escapes and returns to heaven. This is why Jewish tradition teaches that as the body is laid to rest in the ground from which it has come, the soul ascends to the heavens from which it hails. This is true on two occasions, once immediately upon interment, the other when the body returns fully to earth upon decomposition.
This explains why the Talmudic sages spoke of visiting the grave to connect with the souls of our loved ones. They explained that the soul retains a presence at the grave for twelve full months, but that after decomposition, the soul returns only on occasion. So long as bits of the soul are trapped in the body, the soul does not fully depart the grave. After twelve months, the soul is emancipated and permitted to return to its rightful, heavenly abode.
This also explains why the Talmud teaches that the bodies of the truly righteous do not decompose. The truly righteous are those who have never experienced a moment of weakness and indulgence in their entire lives. Their souls return to heaven intact and no fragments thereof remain trapped in the body. If no soul fragments need to escape, the body has no need to decompose.
This explanation offers a glimpse into the idea behind the red heifer. The Torah teaches that a Jew, who is ritually defiled by contact with a human cadaver, must wait seven days before immersing into a ritual bath or Mikvah. But the key to purification is the water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer that is sprinkled on the defiled person on the third and seventh day of the waiting period.
The Heifer symbolizes materialism and physical life. Animals do not become instruments of their souls; on the contrary their souls bend to their bodily desires and instinctive impulses. This is especially true of a red heifer because red, the color of blood, symbolizes the rash intensity of life. Yet, when the heifer is slaughtered, its carcass is burned to ashes. Ash is what is left when the moisture, which symbolizes life, is completely extracted, leaving the substance dry and lifeless. The message is that when the soul is completely extracted from the body, the body is left dry and lifeless, cleared of entrapped soul fragments. And then it is pure.
On a practical level the Red Heifer and Shiva telegraph the same message. Whether we choose withdrawal or engagement, we are meant to harness body to soul and live noblely. Only then can we escape the pitfalls of defilement to become spiritually pristine and holy.