The Paradox of Death
In Memory of Art Averbook
I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening
This week we have a two parshas. One of them, Chukat, details the most obscure part of the Torah. The laws and ceremonies of the Red Heifer whose ashes were an integral ingredient to purifying someone who was in a state of Tumah, impurity.
Before we go on, we need to get an understanding of this whole Tumah/Tahara system that appears in the Torah in a number of places. It is normally translated as Impure and Pure respectively, but not only is that a lame translation but a misleading one. We associate Pure with good, clean, untainted and wholesome while Impure is the opposite – bad, dirty, tainted and contaminated. But Tumah/Tahara have nothing to do with these associations.
There is no moral issue attached to either of these states. Tumah is not bad or evil and Tahara is not good and morally superior. They are what they are and their definitions are wholly defined by one’s proximity to death. That’s it. As Rabbi Sacks (borrowing from an idea from Samson Raphael Hirsch) succinctly puts it about the Red Heifer: “A dead body is the primary source of impurity, and the defilement it caused to the living meant that the person so affected could not enter the precincts of the Tabernacle or Temple until cleansed, in a process that lasted seven days.”
Let’s face it, most often death is not something any of us can control. It is a part of life and at some time or another we come in contact with the dead. And hence there is nothing right or wrong about it. Tumah/Tahara is a completely independent system to Good/Evil, Truth/Falsehood – systems we are much more familiar with.
The weird paradox of this whole Tumah/Tahara structure is that within the preparation of the components that transform one out of a state of Tumah is that, at the very same time, it makes that preparer who is Tahor (“Pure”) transform into a state of Tumah.
It is no accident that there is inherent paradox within this system that is wholly associated with Death because this selfsame paradox exists within the notion and reality of Death itself. Death by its very nature is a contradiction in many ways.
When we are young we generally do not think too much about death. We think we are invincible and will live forever. But as we get older and start to feel the decline we realize this is a fiction. And then when the grandparents and then the parents pass on, well now it is a different ball game. You realize that, guess what – you’re next in line. They acted as this fake buffer and now you find yourself as the oldest in the extended family.
Whether death happens suddenly and tragically to a young person or even when it happens as the normal trajectory of a life well-lived for many years, it still leaves us scratching our head in some level of disbelief. How could this being who had so much life, vigor, accomplishment, achievement, potential and activity all of a sudden just stop and no longer be? Death by its very nature is a complete paradox to the ever-present life as we know it. It makes no sense and may give rise to the notion that all of life may be rendered absurd in the end.
This hit home this week with the passing of a dear friend who came to my classes every week for a very long time. Anyone who heard of his recent illness was completely shocked by it. Even though he was in his 70s, up until a couple months ago he was the picture of health and the guy I have always said that I wish I will be like when I am his age. He played tennis every day, practiced yoga, ate healthy, etc. I have played tennis with him a number of times in the past and he has beaten me every time even though I am over a decade younger. If there was anyone who you would think would live forever, this was the guy. But nobody lives forever.
On the other end of the spectrum, the beginning of life with the birth of a baby has a similar contradiction. How is a baby in a womb, disconnected to the air we need to breathe to live, able to stay alive? Yes, of course, oxygen travels through the mother’s lungs, heart, vasculature, uterus, and placenta, finally making its way through the umbilical cord and into the fetus. Its ability to live in an environment that would smother anyone else to death makes about as much sense as a living being with a life-force having that cease.
The paradox of the Tumah/Tahara cycle reflects the paradox of the Life/Death cycle to which it represents. But that paradox only exists because of our limited, material perspective. In truth, we know we have a soul which is a reflection of God, a “piece of God” if you will, and hence lives forever. The body stops but not the soul. What it does “up there” I cannot exactly tell you, but continue it does.
It continues not only as an entity itself but in the legacy and ripples of good that one does. It continues and carries on eternally through others who have been affected by that good. A person may no longer be physically present, but their influence is still felt long after they are gone. Not just in a memory but in the real, tangible marks they have made on others. Naming a child after a deceased relative testifies to our intuitive sense that death is not the be all and end all of a person’s life.
We might never fully understand the paradox of Tumah/Tahara and Life/Death but we can certainly understand the good others have done for us that has shaped our lives each and every day. That in no way is a paradox and makes perfect sense.