Life and death

Judaism deals with every aspect of life - and death.

Contact Editor
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow


Shiva

Judaism has a formula for everything. From birth to death, the Torah provides a detailed guide on proper conduct. When it comes to death, Judaism prescribes a seven-day period of mourning, called shivah, during which we sit at home, sheltered from the daily routine, and mourn. However, immediately after this period, we deliberately tear ourselves away from grief and force ourselves back into the routine of life.

The Torah’s approach is to grieve without shame or reserve. Yet the Torah enjoins us to limit our grieving, and force ourselves back into life’s routine. “Don’t grieve excessively,” say the Talmudic sages. 

Baldness

In a poignant demonstration of this limitation, the Torah tells us: “You are children of the Lord, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.”


The Torah’s approach is to grieve without shame or reserve. Yet the Torah enjoins us to limit our grieving, and force ourselves back into life’s routine. “Don’t grieve excessively,” say the Talmudic sages. 
In biblical days, it was customary for people to self-flagellate and tear the hair form their head in grief. The Torah forbids this excessive expression of grief because we are G-d’s children. What is the connection between being G-d’s children and the prohibition against tearing our hair?

Rashi explains that as G-d’s children, we must comport ourselves with dignity even in times of grief. But this explanation does not suffice because following this rationale, the Torah should have prohibited tearing our hair at all times, yet the Torah only prohibits this in times of grief.

Ibn Izra explained that as G-d’s children, we must know that G-d loves us. Even when events seem tragic and cruel, we must remember that we are like young children, who don’t doubt their parents’ love even when they don’t understand the wisdom of their choices. Others explain that excessive grief is only appropriate when one is truly bereft. Because we are always with our father in heaven, we are never truly bereft. This renders excessive mourning inappropriate. 

These answers explain why the prohibition against tearing our hair applies specifically to times of grief, but we are left with one more question. After delivering a general prohibition against self-flagellation, The Torah specifies causing baldness between our eyes. Why is this singled out?

The Prince

The Zohar, a seminal work of Jewish mysticism, offers the following parable. A king sent the crown prince to a distant village to teach the villagers palace etiquette. When the prince completed his task, the king called for his son to return. The villagers began to cry, but a wise man called out, why do you cry, is he not the king’s son? Similarly, Moses, the wise one, said: “You are children of the Lord.” 

G-d dispatched us to this world to be a light unto the nations and to make this world a habitat for G-d. Through our comportment in accordance with Torah and by modeling and teaching a holy way of life, we leave this world holier and G-dlier than it was when we arrived.

Yet, while we are here, we are apt to forget our purpose and become acclimated to the values and practices of this world. To remember that we are in this world, but not of this world, we are required to hover constantly between two worlds. To recall that we are an amalgam of G-dly souls in human bodies. On the surface, we are identical to others, but within, we are endowed with the holiness of G-d.

"The wise man has eyes in its beginning, but the fool goes in the darkness.” We began our journey as souls and only later were our bodies added to the mix. As wise people, we maintain a constant focus on the beginning because if we relax our focus for even a little, we will be like fools stumbling in the darkness of this world. Lured into thinking that we are here to enjoy the pleasures and to meet the demands of material life, while forgetting our higher calling.

This is why the Torah enjoins us to wear tefillin every weekday morning between our eyes. To keep our eyes in the beginning, it is necessary to forge a link between our eyes and our minds. The eyes roam and take in all the alluring sights of the material world. Our minds, however, reminds us of our purpose. We are not of this world, we are children of G-dl; dispatched here to make this world more G-dly. 

Donning tefillin and placing them between our eyes is a daily reminder to give our minds mastery over our eyes. To allow our minds to interpret the sights taken in by our eyes.

Defining Death

The physical objects of creation are only alive and existent because of the divine creative energy that flows through them. Without G-d, the entire world would collapse. When we look at our material luxuries, we must recall that without G-d they would die. If it were shrivelled and dead, it would hold no appeal for us. The only reason it is alluring, is because G-d infuses it with life.

It follows that we are not attracted to the dead materialism in it, we are only attracted to the life, the G-dliness, that dwells within it. When we view material life from this perspective, we don’t grow excited over materialism for its physical appeal, but for its spiritual value. By the same token, our crass material side doesn’t grow excited over dead material luxuries, only our soul grows excited because the G-dly spark in them helps us reach our spiritual goals and advance our spiritual purpose. Similarly, when we lose something material, we don’t mourn its loss excessively. After all, it is only the G-dly component in it that attracted us, and G-d is still here. 

When we view life this way, we come to take a similar view of death. When a loved one passes, we remember that the body was always dead; it was only the soul, the divine spark, that gave it life. In death, the body was separated from soul, but the soul is still here. It is natural to cry because we will miss seeing the soul in its body, but we don’t grieve excessively because the soul continues to exist.

We certainly don’t tear the hair from the hairline above our eyes because that represents a severance between eye and mind. Proper perspective is only maintained by a healthy relationship between mind and eye. Says the Torah, as G-d’s children, whose souls live on past the demise of the body, don’t tear the hair from between your eyes. On the contrary, allow your mind to suffuse your eyes with a healthy perspective of the materialism that they see.