Torat Avigdor:
The Torah Laws of inheritance: Keeping it in the family

Death means you stop - not breathing; something much worse – you stop serving Hashem. Your opportunity to choose is lost forever.

Rav Avigdor Miller ,

Rav Avigdor Miller
Rav Avigdor Miller

In this week’s Torah reading, sedrah, we learn about the dinim of yerusha, the laws of inheritance: אִישׁ כִּי יָמוּת – When a man dies, וְהַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ – you have to give over his property to his children. There’s a process of inheritance; who gets first, who gets second and so on – very many dafim in Shas are filled with its laws, but whatever the details are, what we see is that, וּנְתַתֶּם אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ לִשְׁאֵרוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו – you shall give his inheritance to his relative who is closest to him of his family (Pinchas 27: 9-11).

Now what’s the idea of yerusha? So people say, “Well, it’s common sense; man’s property is inherited by the son. Even goyim know that. What else should we do with his property? It should be a free for all? Everyone should come and grab whatever they want?!”

Native American practices regarding inheritance (Minhagim)

You know there were some Indian tribes that actually did that. When Columbus discovered America he found a lot of Native American tribes; and some of these tribes had customs, minhagim, that were unknown to the Europeans.

We should listen for a minute to a certain Professor Mitchiner – an authority on Indian (Native American) culture – and hear how he describes the process of inheritance. Here is an Indian warrior who gave his life to save his tribe. He fought heroically but, nebach, he lost his life. And how did they bury him? They put him on a wooden pallet – it was like a wooden bed – and they carried him to the woods and left him in a certain tree-grave that they had prepared. They put the pallet on the tree and there he lay for the birds to come to pick at his eyes and consume his flesh. That was the hero’s burial.

Now, this warrior left a widow and children in his tent. What happened to her, his almanah? So here Mitchiner describes with a note of apology that there was a “cruel and inexorable law of the prairies.” It means they had a minhag – Mitchiner wants to blame it on the prairies – that as soon as this man’s funeral was over, the sisterhood of the tribe, all the important, chusheveh women, descended upon the grieving widow and took away every last thing she possessed.

That was the rule – now that there was nobody to protect her, it’s the law of the tribe to take away every shred, every stick that she possessed. They took away everything – her dishes, her cooking utensils, her sewing utensils – and they left her with nothing except for the clothing on her back.

They even took away her home; they took her wigwam apart and she was left homeless as midwinter arrived. And nobody invited this widow into their homes; that would have been against procedure. And so what did she do? She went to live among the horses in order to try to maintain her life a little longer. And in the morning they found her frozen to death.

That was the laws of inheritance ,hilchos yerusha, of this Indian tribe. That was the standard procedure – there was no such thing as inheritance as we know it

Inheritance Secrets

And the truth is why should there be? Why should you have yerusha? He’s a dead man – he doesn’t own anything anymore. Why shouldn’t you say, a man dies – he’s finished. Why should his family get it? He’s a pauper! It’s hefker! Nothing is his anymore. It’s like a ger shemeis, a convert who dies without any relatives, so we say bizbezu yisroel nechasavanybody can come and seize his property!

That’s how it should be even if there are those who could inherit, yorshim; if you’re finished with this world, why should your property remain connected to you or your children?

Tell me about the nations, umos ha’olam, that do have laws of inheritance, procedures and details for who gets what – first the government comes and steals a big piece of your hard earned money, and then this family member or that one takes something too. Yerusha is just common sense, you think. “Why not? Many of the umos ha’olam have laws of inheritance and we also have laws of inheritance.” Of course it’s Torah, but it’s just financial, dinei mamonos.

That’s wrong; it’s very wrong. There’s more to the laws of the yerusha than just details of divvying up someone else’s money; more than just children benefiting from the hard work of their parents. There’s much more here that Hakodosh Boruch Hu intends.

And it’s not merely that the Torah is training us to have rachmanus, to care about the widow and the orphans. That’s true too, but the Torah is teaching us here an entirely new attitude – Hakodosh Boruch Hu wants us to know that the one who left this world is looking down to see what becomes of his property, his money. He’s actually interested in what’s happening!

Watching From On High - the basis of family inheritance

So you’ll say, “But he’s in the world to come, Olam Haboh, now!” Now he sees that this world, Olam Hazeh, is nothing; he knows now it was all a facade and therefore it should mean nothing to him now. He thinks about such things?! He cares that his son should have his money?! What difference does it make to him now?

No! The verse, possuk, is teaching us here that it means everything to him. He’s watching; he’s terribly interested. He wants his sons to have his property!

Now, I know this is a delicate subject and I won’t be able to convince anybody completely but there’s no question that there is a definite connection between the soul, the neshama, and this world, Olam Hazeh. Not only a connection, but the neshama clings to Olam Hazeh with all its might, koach.

And it’s not merely while you’re still alive in this world – the instinct of self preservation like we see that even an insect tries desperately to save its life. No, it’s much more than that because the Torah is telling us here that even after a person leaves this world he continues to yearn for Olam Hazeh. Of course, I’m not capable of telling you the secrets of the neshama, but the fact is that everyone wishes to have some connection with Olam Hazeh. Even after he leaves the world; the neshama remains intensely interested in what was left behind.

Olam Haboh Is Ah Gutter Zach...The world to come is good...

And that’s because in the depths of the neshama everyone senses that there’s concealed in Olam Hazeh a great secret. Olam Hazeh has something that Olam Haboh does not have; there’s a certain quality in this world that is unequaled even in Olam Haboh. And just because of that, the neshama understands that Olam Hazeh is the place!

What is it about Olam Hazeh that the neshama doesn’t want to let go of? The answer is that it’s only in this short life that we have the opportunity to choose. “U’bacharta ba’chayim,” Hashem said. “Choose life!” Not only I’m telling you that you could do it, but I’m commanding you, I’m encouraging you – “Choose life.”

Lernen Toirah Iz Ah Besser Zach... Studying Torah is better...

The great gift of Olam Hazeh is bechira, free will – the ability to choose to become better. That’s the purpose of life. Like Dovid HaMelech said, לֹא הַמֵּתִים יְהַלְלו קָהּ – The dead will not praise Hashem (Tehillim 116:17). So we ask, mai komashma lun - what is Dovid telling us? Certainly the dead man won't praise Hashem anymore; we need Dovid to tell us that?

Dovid is saying, “Be afraid of death! To die?! That’s the last thing we want to do in our lives!” Because death means you stop - not you stop breathing; something much worse than that – you stop serving Hashem. Your opportunity to choose goes lost forever.

Moshe Protests

You remember when Hashem told Moshe Rabeinu, הֵן קָֽרְבוּ יָמֶיךָ לָמוּת – The end of your days is coming soon; so did Moshe Rabeinu accept the news stoically? No! He made a big fuss; he put up a big fight. וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל הַשֵּׁם – I don’t want to die! It wasn't only to get into Eretz Yisrael.

It’s because he knew that it’s a tremendous opportunity to be alive! יָפָה שָׁעָה אַחַת שֶׁל תְּשׁוּבָה וּמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה מִכָּל חַיֵּי עוֹלָם הַבָּא – One moment of teshuva, of good deeds in this world is better than all eternity in the Next World! (Avos 4:17).

If Moshe Rabbeinu could come back for one minute, he’d give up everything; he’d give up a big part of Olam Haboh, even to be just one minute in this world. That’s how precious every second is! Every minute is a diamond because it’s a glorious opportunity for achievement. If it means you can learn just one more line of gemara or put one more nickel in the pushka, it’s worth it.

Accomplishment Is Greater Than Happiness

Now, there’s no question we’ll be very satisfied with Olam Haboh. We’ll be very happy in the next world. If we could even just picture it we wouldn’t be able to survive. The happiness of Olam Haboh would burst our blood vessels with excitement. The gemara says that the happiness is so great that Hakodosh Boruch Hu has to give koach to the tzaddikim in Olam Haboh so that they should be able to endure the happiness – that’s how tremendous it is.

And even so, even though the neshama was especially created for that existence in Olam Haboh that is independent of the body and independent of this world and even though it’s certainly capable of utilizing that career in the next world for very great happiness, yet despite everything, the neshama wants to live longer in this world.

We want to live because we still have so much to accomplish – it’s never enough because the more you do in this world, the more you’re putting away for everlasting life in Olam Haboh. Every deed that you do here, even the smallest mitzvah, is chayim nitzchi’im; it’s forever and ever.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller zts"l was the renowned mashgiach ruchani at Chaim Berlin Yeshiva during the period that Rabbi Hutner led the yeshiva, and a prolific writer and speaker on Torah issues.