Life’s Triumph Over Death
Each morning we begin our prayers with a remarkable expression of gratitude. In the graceful translation of Sim Shalom, it reads as follows:
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You, Lord, healer of all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways. (p. 7)
I love the unvarnished specificity of these words that celebrate the reality of our bodies. Having just awakened, we are stirred by the discovery that our body continues to function smoothly without pain or disorder, and we pause in thankfulness, mindful of how delicate is our endowment. We praise God for one more day of well-being.
Theologically, the prayer avows the goodness of the human body. It is no less the mirror of God’s grandeur than the soul. Judaism does not dichotomize human nature into body and soul, polar opposites locked in never-ending conflict. The flesh is not the devil’s domain or the seat of our passions, to be extirpated by the spirit. Any form of dualism is anathema to Jewish monotheism. Body and soul enjoy the same divine patrimony and, therefore, at the end of time individual resurrection will not be restricted to the spirit. The emphasis on the body in the Jewish concept of tehiyat ha-meitim (the quickening of the dead) is not primitive religion, as Maimonides would have us believe, but a healthy appreciation of the sanctity of the whole person. I prefer to understand this article of faith not as a claim about what will happen in a time beyond our ken, but rather as a view on how we ought to conduct our lives here and now.
These thoughts are triggered by the Torah’s current preoccupation with the subject of illness. The Torah considers the status of new mothers, persons afflicted with a disease of the skin, and persons experiencing abnormal discharges from sexual organs. All three are deemed to be conditions of less than perfect health warranting some degree of separation. For the Torah, which is wholly committed to affirming life, death becomes the ultimate source of impurity. And conditions regarded as life- threatening or a diminution of life likewise contaminate. Prof. Jacob Milgrom (a graduate of the Seminary) explains the Torah’s underlying worldview in his magnificent new Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus:
…in the Israelite mind, blood was the archsymbol of life. Its oozing from the body was no longer the work of demons [a worldwide view], but it was certainly the sign of death. In particular, the loss of seed in vaginal blood was associated with the loss of life. Thus it was that Israel — alone among the peoples — restricted impurity solely to those physical conditions involving the loss of vaginal blood and semen, the forces of life, and to scale disease, which visually manifested the approach of death. All other bodily issues and excrescences were not tabooed, despite their impure status among Israel’s contemporaries, such as cut hair or nails in Persia and India and the newborn child as well as its mother in Greece and Egypt. Human feces were also not declared impure…. The elimination of waste has nothing to do with death; on the contrary, it is essential to life. (p. 767)
Similarly, the abhorrence of death prompted the Torah to forbid priests to come near the corpse of an Israelite, except for their immediate relatives. And the high priest was denied even that dispensation. Some of you may recall that my teacher and predecessor Chancellor Gerson D. Cohen was a kohen and absented himself from all funerals. Prof. Baruch A. Levine (also a Seminary graduate) suggests in his equally fine commentary to Leviticus (JPS) that the intent of these restrictions was to prevent the appearance in ancient Israel of a cult of the dead, a form of worship widespread among its neighbors. By imputing extreme impurity to the dead, the Torah squelched the possibility that the sanctuary and temple could become the locus for any funerary rites.
That selfsame abhorrence induced the Torah not to invest the afterlife with any religious significance. In fact the Torah is bereft of a clear notion of what happens after death and surely does not hold out any prospect of personal salvation. Instead, it opted resolutely for embracing the gift at hand:”I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse,” declares Moses to Israel just before his death. “Choose life (Deut. 30:19).” Nor do we have any idea where Moses is buried. His grave was not to become a shrine. Neither death nor the dead were to dominate our lives.
But that robust view could not long prevail. Gradually, rabbinic Judaism developed clearer notions of individuality, life after death, and personal salvation, while the customs of yahrzeit and yizkor did not emerge until even later, after the First Crusade. In the process biblical terms had to be shifted from this world to the next. A particularly striking example is to be found in the delicate and well-known phrase “may their souls be bound up in the bond of life,” in the Keil Malai Rahamim prayer recited in memory of the dead.
In the context of this moving dirge, the phrase is an elusive expression of hope that the souls of our loved ones will find eternal rest in God, the bond of all life. But the phrase is borrowed from a biblical context where it has no connection to the afterlife.
David and his men are on the run from Saul’s wrath and about to attack a wealthy scoundrel named Nabal. His wife Abigail, both arrestingly beautiful and intelligent, intercedes to stay David’s hand from murder. She assuages David with a munificent gift of her own and acknowledges the righteousness of his cause, which must not be tarnished by innocent blood. She assures David of God’s protection in battles to come. “And if anyone sets out to pursue you and seek your life, the life of my lord will be bound up in the bundle of life in the care of the Lord; but He will fling away the lives of your enemies as from the hollow of a sling (I Samuel 25:29).”
While both the biblical and liturgical uses of bi-zror ha-hayyim (the bundle or bond of life) refer exquisitely to God (non-pictorially, I might say), the biblical instance is decidedly this worldly. Because of its antipathy to death, the Bible simply lacked the vocabulary to meet the need of imagining the world-to-come. Indeed, it triumphed over death by affirming life.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,