LIFE & DEATH
Rabbi David Walk
It would seem that I should start this week's effort with a reference to playing chess with the Grim Reaper at the sea shore by the glow of the setting sun. Mining significant ideas out of that profound metaphor of the ultimately fruitless struggle against Death is a common endeavor. But I never liked Swedish Cinema. Sorry, Mr. Bergman. I think it's because they call it 'cinema' instead of 'movies' like normal people. Anyway Woody Allen and Family Guy got there before me. However, I really do want to discuss some issues concerning death this week, because the issue is remarked upon in this week's Torah reading.
In our Parsha we have the following verse: And you shall observe My statutes and My judgments that one should do them and live by them; I am the Lord (Leviticus 18:5). For this week's discussion, the critical quote is 'live by them' or chai bahem. The most popular interpretation of chai bahem is that performing mitzvot should not endanger our lives (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 85a). With very few exceptions mitzvot don't require us to put our lives on the line. Most famously, if a doctor tells you that you shouldn't fast on Yom Kippur, it then becomes prohibited for that person to fast. Notice I said 'doctor' not rabbi. I often get that question, and refer them to a doctor. When we say chai bahem, we mean that health issues tend to trump halachik concerns. Another popular approach is suggested by Rashi, who states that the objective of living within Torah and mitzvot extends beyond the grave. Mitzva performance gives us eternal life.
The great Torah luminaries of Chasidei Gur extend Rashi's position into new spiritual territories. The founder of the movement, the Chidushi Harim (Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1798-1866), wrote that he had heard (sorry, don't know from whom) that 'to live in them' means to put your essential life forces into Torah study and mitzva performance. His grandson and successor, the Sfat Emet (Rav Yehuda Arye Leib Alter, 1847-1905), explains that chai bahem means that Torah gives us life in both this world and the world to come. When God gave us the Torah (and the angels complained that the Torah shouldn't leave heaven), we were given the power to spread Torah even in this physical realm. The second Gerrer Rebbe goes on to say that there are people who live to enjoy this world, and as a result derive their life force from this physical realm. But the individual who desires a life of spirituality, the Torah and mitzvot can be the conduit for receiving this other worldly life force even here in this world. Our Torah efforts have tremendous influence both here and in heaven. In some way, this phrase mitigates the damage done by death, because the Torah and mitzvot we do here can live beyond the grave.
Does this imply that death is an unadulterated evil? No, not necessarily. Even though I must admit that there exist positions that view death as purely an evil and a punishment, I'm not an adherent. The Rav, Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik wrote: Death...is an evil experience if viewed from the level of individual existence. However, if seen under the aspect of the destiny of man as such, the elimination of the old and obsolete or the the departure of people who belong mentally to a different age is the greatest of blessings (Out of the Whirlwind, p. 126-127). Rav Soloveitchik also noted 'Death gives man the opportunity...to build even though he knows that he will not live to enjoy...the edifice...he is engaged to enrich not himself, but coming generations. Death teaches to transcend his physical self and to identify with the timeless covenantal community...it enhances his role as a historical being and sensitizes his moral consciousness (Ibid. p.4).
Rabbi Gerald Blidstein wrote (Tradition 44:1) that the Rav is teaching us that death provides humanity with the opportunity to be truly 'heroic'. Without death we wouldn't have the possibility of achieving the pinnacle of moral greatness, namely, working for a goal which we have no expectation of ever benefitting from. What greater possible example of v'ahavto l'rei'acha komocha (love your colleague like yourself) is there than building a better tomorrow which you may never see? What greater love for your progeny, than leaving a world better than you found it? This may, indeed, be the meaning of the famous Mishneh: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it (Pirkei Avot 2:16). We are tasked to bring about a world of peace, love and Torah, but we don't expect to finish it, see it or enjoy it. It's enough to try.
Dr. Blidstein says that the Rav never saw this imperative as a Sisyphean one. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is tortured by eternally rolling a stone up a hill, only to see it roll back to the exact same place as he completes the effort. We, however, hopefully see progress from our holy exertions, and believe the world is a better place because of them.
I know many of us would like to translate v'chai bahem, as 'have a good time living the Torah and keeping the mitzvot'. As Israelis say la'asot chaim, 'do some living', and as attractive as that thought might be, it doesn't often seem to work out that way. Most of the commentaries translate the phrase to mean, 'make your life meaningful through them.' That's a beautiful thought and one which should inspire us to greater spiritual attainment. That should be enough for any of us, but it can't hurt to have some fun along the way. But the ultimate message of our Torah giants is that we must feel that we have achieved a victory over the Grim Reaper, when our legacy lives on.