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Wednesday
Aug082018

BURY THE DEAD AND VISIT THE SICK

CLEAVE TO G-D. BUT HOW?

In this week’s parsha, Moses continues his soliloquy, admonishing us to follow in G-d’s ways:

“G-d your G-d you shall follow and Him shall you fear; His commandments shall you keep and to His voice shall you listen, Him shall you serve and to Him shall you cleave.”

The final words “and to Him shall you cleave,” are difficult to understand. How can a mortal cleave to a non-corporeal Deity?

Rashi addresses this problem and explains that the verse actually means that we should “cleave to His ways, perform acts of kindness: Bury the dead; visit the sick; just as the Holy One, Blessed is He, did.”

Commentaries point to the Talmud (Sota 14a), which provides the Biblical source for these acts of kindness by G-d: He buried Moses (see Deuteronomy 34:6 and Rashi on that verse) and visited Abraham when he was ailing from his circumcision (See Genesis 18:1 and Rashi).

When we compare Rashi’s words on our parsha with the foregoing Talmudic discussion several questions arise.

First, Rashi gives two examples of acts of kindness: burying the dead and visiting the sick. The Talmud gives two additional examples: G-d clothed the naked (Adam and Eve) when He made leather garments for them to cover their nakedness and G-d comforted Isaac, the mourner, after Abrahams’s passing.

Why does Rashi omit the other two examples, clothing the naked and comforting the mourner?

Second, why does Rashi mention burying the dead before visiting the sick? G-d’s visit to Abraham occurred many centuries before He buried Moses.

Furthermore, the Mitzvah of visiting the sick usually takes place before burying the dead and is presumably a greater Mitzvah. Why then place burying the dead before visiting the sick?

On a simple level, we may suggest that Rashi’s audience is familiar with the idea of burial because not too long before (at the end of the book of Numbers), we read about Aaron’s burial and the hints of Moses’ burial to come. Furthermore, in Deuteronomy Moses mentioned several times that he was going to pass away in the desert. Since Moses’ passing and burial were fresh in the minds of Moses and the people, Rashi begins with that example of kindness.

However, the question can still be raised, why does Rashi need any example of acts of kindness? And if an example is needed, why two examples? Why wouldn’t one example suffice?

To answer these questions, we should view the verse in its parsha-context.

CONTEXT: FALSE PROPHETS

Right before this verse, the Torah speaks of the need to reject a prophet who exhorts us to worship other g-ds. The Torah tells us that such a prophet will be sent as a test to see if we really love G-d with all our hearts and souls.

Right after this instruction, the Torah addresses the notion of cleaving to G-d.

That verse, in turn, is followed by a continuation of how we should reject the words of the false prophet.

It follows, then, that cleaving to G-d is related to the need to repudiate false prophets, idolatry and other heretical views.

This means that, in addition to the need to perform acts of kindness because they are acts of kindness, there is another dimension to the performance of these Mitzvos. Acts of kindness attach us firmly to G-d, making us impervious to the powerful influence of a false prophet, even one who can perform miracles and who seems to speak in the name of G-d.

In general, when we follow the Commandments and listen to the words of true prophets, we become resistant to the charm and influence of the false prophets, notwithstanding their apparently miraculous powers.

However, that might not be enough. The Torah wants us to be fully protected by becoming G-dly, which we do by performing G-dly acts. When we attach ourselves to His ways by emulating Him, it suffuses us with G-dly energy; we become more G-dly.

However, of all the commandments that we can do to emulate G-d, the emphasis here is placed on acts of kindness because they generate a reciprocal reaction of Divine kindness. In His infinite kindness, He protects us from falling prey to the evil influence of false prophets.

The two acts of kindness Rashi mentions, burying the dead and visiting the sick, can be explained allegorically.

THE TRUE DEFINITION OF DEATH AND LIFE

Every human being is a composite of body and soul. The body without the soul is inherently a dead creation. Likewise, when a living person turns from G-d, the source of true life, he or she is called dead. The Talmud (Brachos 18a) states “The righteous even when they are dead, they are considered alive, whereas the wicked, even when they are alive, they are considered dead.”

The Zohar questions Judaism’s traditional practice to visit and pray at the graves of righteous people. Why, it asks rhetorically, isn’t this a violation of the Biblical commandment (Deuteronomy 18:11) not to “consult the dead?”

The Zohar answers that these righteous people are indeed alive. It is the wicked we may not consult, even when they are alive, because they are dead even as they breathe and their hearts beat.

The area most identified with death, even in life, is idolatry. When someone brazenly rejects G-d’s unity it leads to the ultimate detachment from life. This explains why one of the most significant focuses of idol worship involves identifying with and obsessing over death. This can drive the devotee to sleep in cemeteries, use pieces of corpses to summon occult powers and perform necromancy; practices the Torah strictly forbids.

Thus, when we perform an act of kindness by burying the dead, we cleave to G-d and it stimulates His reciprocal act of burying and destroying the influence of idolatry and all other forms of evil by which humans are considered dead.

SPIRITUAL ILLNESS

The danger of being influenced by these false prophets is not restricted to an all-out assault on G-d’s unity or identifying with the forces of idolatry and death.

There are times that the forces of “false prophecy” come in a subtler form. One may utterly repudiate attachment to the deadly influences preached by the false prophets of society. Nevertheless, that person may lose his or her zest for the teachings of Torah and Mitzvah observance. One’s attachment to Judaism can dwindle, becoming lethargic and devoid of joy. To be sure, one may remain meticulous in observance but only by rote.

One cannot claim that such a person is in “contact with the dead,” metaphorically speaking, but he or she is certainly not in the best of spiritual health. Once the “false prophets” infect us, it is only a matter of time before they ensnare us with the more lethal powers of spiritual death. As our Sages (Talmud, Shabbos 105b) tell us, the Evil Impulse first gets a person to commit a minor transgression. It then entices us all the way down the slippery slope until we find ourselves worshiping idols.

When we engage in the act of kindness of visiting the sick we precipitate a parallel spiritual act of G-d, which is to visit and heal us of our own spiritual maladies.

First, however, we must battle the more threatening forces of spiritual death. Only then can we also heal the spiritually sick.

This explains why Rashi mentions burying the dead before visiting the sick. We must first deal with the more destructive forces and only then we can take care of the subtler forms of evil.

RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD

We can also understand these two acts of kindness, represented by burying the dead and visiting the ill, in a different fashion.

Jewish law is strident in its insistence that we bury the dead and not cremate their bodies. Among other reasons, the burial of the dead acknowledges our belief in Maimonides’ 13th Principle of Faith that in the Messianic Age bodies of the dead will be resurrected and reunited with their souls. This principle is deeply rooted in the Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah and every classical Jewish source.

The belief in the body’s resilience is also rooted in another theological premise. The very reason the soul, a part of the Divine, comes into a physical body is to reveal that the body too is G-dly. When we perform Mitzvos, which are physical acts, our physical bodies become holy and are vested with true and immortal life.

In truth, and upon deeper reflection, it is clear that the belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, the 13th and last principle, actually contains all 13 principles: it affirms our belief in one infinite G-d, who has communicated to us through Moses and other prophets His plan for the unfolding of the ideal Messianic Era, at which time the spiritual and physical will enjoy complete parity and harmony.

Burial of the dead, as opposed to cremation, affirms our belief in the integrity of the body and its true partnership with the soul; both are indispensable in fulfilling G-d’s plan for the universe.

The false prophets, literally and figuratively, try to draw us away from our fundamental beliefs.

Thus, when we demonstrate our firm belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, G-d will reciprocate by hastening the coming of Moshiach and the Final Redemption, followed by the literal return of the dead to life.

CURING THE ILLNESS BY REACHING THE 50TH LEVEL OF HOLINESS

The false prophets are not content with repudiating the Resurrection of the Dead and the immortality of the body. Their next line of attack is designed to render us ill by denying our soul’s spiritual quest.

Chassidic thought describes a sophisticated concept of illness as a spiritual malady, brought on by our being in Galus-exile. The Hebrew word for ill-choleh has the numerical value of 49. When a person reaches the penultimate, 49th level of holiness and yearns to reach the ultimate 50th level, he or she is considered ill. Certainly, those of us who have not attained even that level suffer from our own Galus-itis. If we don’t feel sick it is even a greater form of illness; in the grip of that state of denial one does not seek healing.

When we visit the sick, and thereby help them with their recovery, we generate a reciprocal gesture from G-d. He cures our Galus-illness by bringing us Moshiach and the Final Redemption.

May we all enjoy a speedy recovery, physically and spiritually, imminently!

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