This week’s parasha, Chukat, discusses how a person can become impure through contact with a dead body. The laws include the status of someone who comes into direct contact with a corpse- such as through touching- as well as into indirect contact- such as being in the same building as a corpse. We learn of how an impure person or even an impure object can sometimes make people or objects with which they come into contact impure.
Later in the parasha we read about the death of Aharon HaKohen. He was commanded to ascend a mountain, where he discovered a room that contained a bed and a candle. He was told to remove his special Kohen Gadol garments and to lie down on the bed, and then to spread out his hands, close his mouth and shut his eyes. He passed away right after doing so, in a death the Midrash and Gemara call ne
Immediately after this, Moshe desired to die in the same way.
In light of these ideas, let’s take a closer look at what death means, how it causes impurity, and the significance of the neshika death. Before we get to all of that, we will need to learn more about the neshama, the soul.
(Most of the following is a humble attempt to present the words of the great Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, from his Derech Hashem.)
People are combinations of the material and spiritual, as our physical body contains our spiritual soul. This miraculous ‘partnership’ has been compared to the blending of water and fire, since by the laws of nature the spiritual and the physical simply cannot coexist:
“…the One Who heals all flesh and performs wondrous acts.”
–From the asher yatzar blessing
“ ‘Performs wondrous acts’: this refers to the combination of body and soul”
-Rabbeinu Moshe Isserlis, gloss on Shulchan Aruch
The soul, of course, is what gives us life. True, animals are alive and so they must also have souls, but theirs are far more basic than those we humans have; animal souls contain just a life element as well as survival instincts- but they don’t provide the animal with real intelligence nor the ability to formulate and express ideas, and they are not connected to sources in the Upper Worlds as are ours. To be precise, the differences that exist between animals’ abilities and ours are direct results of the different souls we possess.
Our soul has several ‘layers’, each of which contributes to who we are in this world and to our true, deeper identities whose roots are in the highest spiritual worlds. The soul has tremendous spiritual strength, and the great effects that our actions, our speech and even our thoughts have on the deepest parts of the universe are a testimony to the power of the soul and its connections to the Upper Worlds. As strong as the soul is, it is covered and even weakened by the body that holds it. Imagine taking a thick towel and covering a lamp; that’s the effect the material body has on our powerful- but sensitive- soul. In reality, the soul’s natural power is actually much stronger than the body’s, and it should really be able to affect the body itself with its spiritual energy so that it too becomes pure. However, Hashem combines the two entities in such a way that the soul can’t overcome the body.
Why did He place this ‘safety feature’ in us? So that we could live normally in the physical world we have been placed in; if our bodies were “purified”, we would become almost completely spiritual beings and this world would not present a test and challenge to us as it is meant to. Although this is a necessary measure, it still means that the soul does not truly express itself and does not achieve its full potential in this world– and that it will need to be given an opportunity to do so some other time…
A person dies when the soul leaves his/her body. The soul ascends to heaven to be judged, and, often only after having been cleansed in gehinom, is permitted to rest in the olam haneshamot- literally, the world of souls. There, every soul enjoys a spiritual pleasure that is beyond human comprehension. The body, meanwhile, is buried and decomposes. Before Adam Harishon sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, man was supposed to live for eternity, with the body and soul in perfect harmony and the soul constantly purifying the body and bringing the person to higher and higher levels of spirituality. After the sin, though, the body and soul were thrown into conflict with each other. Now every day would be an internal struggle between physical and spiritual drives. The soul would no longer fully affect the body, and that is why death came to the world- because the body and soul would now have to separate from each other, so that the soul could affect the body at a later stage in which they were no longer competing with each other : Olam Haba, the World to Come. When the time of techiat hametim– the Resurrection of the Dead- will take place, each soul will be returned to the body it once inhabited- and will be able to shine through the material body, because the body’s decomposition had cleansed it of its material ‘heaviness’ until this reunion took place.
I hope to continue this topic next week; we should go into more detail of what we discussed today, and branch into related topics.
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.