A Matter of Life and Death


Rabbi Reuven Mann


Written by a student



On occasion, I have the pleasure to spend time learning with Rabbi Reuven Mann in Plainview NY, and enjoy his many classes throughout Shabbos. This past Shabbos he spoke on some important Torah themes.

Rabbi Mann commenced by considering the Torah’s view of death: “Lave chacham b’vais avale”, “The heart of a wise man is in the house of mourning”. What is the wisdom referred to here? Maimonides too says that when faced with the choice between a wedding and a house of mourning, one should go to the house of mourning. Additionally, King Solomon states that it is better to be go to a house of mourning than to a party. When Jacob was about to die, he prepared his children. He was no fraught with terror or any fear of death, but was collected, reviewed each of his sons’ merits and flaws, addressing them with much wisdom. King David also mirrored this approach to death, as he too just before dying, counseled his son Solomon. We learn that in the future, we will no longer recite the “Dayan haEmess”, or “True Judge” blessing. We will no longer view death with morbidity or evil. Rather, upon hearing news of someone’s death, we will recite “Hatove v’Hamative”, “One who is good and does good”.  With this in mind, we question why contact with the dead prohibited for priests.

What is the great lesson of death? We notice that people have a difficult time dealing with this subject: they joke about death, although prohibited by, “Lo-age l’rash charaf Asahu”, “One who mocks the poor [the dead] disgraces his Maker.” This is because death is a great blow to one’s narcissism. People are distorted, and are striving for immortality. People chase wealth, even if they are millionaires. If they would live to be 1000, then, perhaps, a millionaire may be justified to continue working into his eighties. But this is not the case. What propels such behavior is the fantasy of immortality.

We just completed the Torah portion of Emor. In it, we learn of the Priests’ prohibition of becoming ritually defiled (tamay) through contact with the dead. As this prohibition does not apply to the other tribes of Israel, we wonder what we may derive form such a law. Clearly, a connection between death and the Priests is thereby evidenced. But what is this connection?

The Priest has a significant role in Judaism. He is the one who services in the Temple, which includes sacrifices of animals and produce offerings. Some of these sacrifices serve the purpose of repentance, such as the Chatas offering. What do repentance, animal sacrifice and produce offerings share in common? What do these phenomena reflect on Temple worship? And what is the connection to the Priest and his prohibition to come in contact with the dead?

One more item mentioned by Rabbi Mann in connection with death, is that the Torah obscures Olam Haba, the afterlife. No mention is made of this reality. Why must this be?

Rabbi Mann offered an interesting observation. He expressed that the Temple has a focus: it is “life”. Meaning, the goal of the Temple is to teach man the correct ideas for life here on Earth. And the rewards of the good life are also in terms of this world. The Shima states, “And I will give you rain for your land in its time.” When we experience a bountiful crop, we bring our best produce to the Temple. When we are wealthy, we give our wealth to God’s purposes; such as Temple, the poor, and other mitzvos. Jacob too gave back to God a tenth of the wealth that God granted him. The remainder Jacob used to live properly. Wealth is good; the Torah does not frown on he who is wealthy. For with wealth, he procures all necessities to follow God. The true servant of God also avoids fantasies carried by wealth. It is our relationship to money, which may be corrupt, not the money itself. Charity helps to place man in the proper focus. Jacob gave a tenth to God to emphasize from Whom he received his wealth. He wished to show thanks for the good he experienced in this life. Temple sacrifice duplicates Jacob’s act of giving to God, and these sacrifices also include repentance. This teaches that we are to be concerned with living the proper life, removed from sin. So we bring our sin offerings to God in the Temple. We bring them to the Priest.

The Priest is the one who worships in the Temple. To highlight this point that Temple focuses on life, he is restricted from contact with the dead, unless they are one of his close relatives. Of course if there is a body with no one to bury it, then even the High Priest – normally prohibited from contact even with close relatives – must take responsibility and bury the dead.

Our existence in this world is to be our focus, unlike other religions that are focused on the afterlife. In doing so, the other religions miss this life, and pass up the one opportunity God granted us to study His marvels, and come to appreciate His wisdom and Torah. The truth is, if one learns and observes the Torah’s commands, but for the objective of receiving the next world, he is not truly deserving, as he did not follow the commands or study…as an ends in themselves. He imagines something “else” awaits him in the afterlife.

What is the correct approach through which we truly value Torah and mitzvos and are granted eternal life? It is when one learns Torah because he is intrigued by the subject matter, then he learns properly, and then he will enjoy the afterlife. But the afterlife is not another thing divorced from wisdom; rather, it is wisdom on the highest plane. So, if wisdom is not something that we have learned to love here, what is one anticipating with regards to the afterlife, the purpose of which is a greater wisdom, and knowledge of God? If one learns, never reaching the level of learning for itself, “Torah Lishma”, then his learning suffers, and his life has not served its purpose. We cannot calculate who retains what measure of the afterlife. However, what the wise and perfected men and women enjoy here, they will enjoy to a much greater degree in the next world, but we must come to “enjoy” our learning – our focus must be on this life. Therefore, the Torah obscures the afterlife, although a very real phenomenon.

In order that man achieves his goal, that he truly values Torah and mitzvos for themselves as is God’s will, God designed the Torah to focus man on this life, so we may use it to obtain a true appreciation for the Creator, the One who made this life. The priest, who worships in the Temple, displays the character of the Temple’s focus – this life – through the prohibition to come in contact with the dead. Aaron was called a “Rodafe shalom”, a “pursuer of peace”. He was one who sought to create peace…in this life, thereby reflecting the purpose of the Temple wherein he ministered.

“Lave chacham b’vais avel”, “the heart of a wise man is in the house of mourning”. This teaches us that a wise man does not approach death with morbidity; he does not cater to his immortality fantasy. He views life and death as God’s design, and thus, they are both good, and deserving an intellectual approach.