Parshat Chukat: Living with Death: Mortality, Loss, and Guilt

In the beginning of this week’s parsha, we read rules that guide people who have encountered death. For example: In Bamidbar 19:14 we read how all the persons who were in the home when someone died, or who came into the home of the dead before the funeral – classically the family of the deceased – are impure for a week. We read how on the third day a non-family member comes to these persons, who are sitting in their clothing while secluded at home, and sprinkles them with cold spring water in which ashes are mixed – a bracing dirty splash in the face. The splashed secluded persons then presumably wipe the exfoliant ash and water off their faces – and thus wipe the sweat off their faces. On the seventh day this washing of the face is repeated and the secluded persons then leave their home to go bathe/clean themselves in streams or such in order to wash off their sweat and clean their dirt filled clothing.

In other words, we read how for the first two and a bit days, the extended bereft family sits at home with no expectation that the immediate family of the deceased be sociable. On the third day, a pure visitor from the outside helps them move on to the stage of facing visitors with a clean face. On the seventh day, they end the intensive stage of sitting at home and go out to face society with clean body and clean clothes.

This process is well known to us – It is a process of mourning.

mourningOf course this mourning process does not end magically at the end of this intensive week of reclusion. Thus, we find several examples in the Torah of public mourning for thirty days – such as Yosef and his brothers mourning Yaakov’s death for thirty days with an Egyptian entourage community (Genesis 50:10). We also find examples of longer mourning such as Yaakov mourning the seeming death of Yosef for “many days” (Genesis 37:34).

These processes, too, are well known to us in Halakha. We have a lesser 23 days of mourning after shiv’a – for a total of thirty days of mourning. In the words of a beraita (a teaching of the ancient rabbis): “three days for crying, seven days for speaking about the dead person, and thirty days for refraining from wearing pressed clothing” (bMoed Katan 27b). For people, whom we need to or should publicly mourn longer, such as parents, we have a year. Eventually, this came to include kaddish, with which the community recognizes the mourner’s pains and psychological struggles while the mourners move to find again glimmers of G-d’s glory in a world of death as they also reframe the memory of the deceased as more and more holy (or in metaphysical language, the soul rises).

Not Just Mourning

Beyond mourning, however, our parsha mentions other situations. It mentions that, “whoever comes upon a murder victim, a corpse, a human bone, a grave, in the field, shall [also] be impure for seven days” (Numbers 19:16). Anyone who finds the remains of a person who died alone and abandoned faces their own mortality and also goes into reclusion for a week. Similarly, Numbers 31:19 (Parshat Pinhas) points out explicitly that even a person who killed another justifiably in war is impure for a week. Even a person who knows on a rational level that they are not guilty must face the negative experience of having killed instead of having it either eat away at them or letting it desensitize them.

These last experiences differ from mourning, however, in that they end after a week. It is true that the rabbis recognized that we can carry negative impressions of death for longer (cf. Shmuel in bMoed Katan 8a on the effects of hearing a euology). However, le-Halakha they followed the Torah in recognizing that we must not excessively sink into negative feelings over such negative but not mourning situations.

In fact: even as regards mourning, the beraita in b. Moed Katan 27a taught us that although a mourner can extend the seventh day by waiting until the end of the day or can wait until the end of the thirtieth day, excessive mourning beyond those days is forbidden. Truly excessive mourning can even lead to ignoring the living – in the words of R. Yehuda (there in the Talmud) it can lead the mourner to have to “cry for another person’s death”.

In other words: The Torah and Halakha through the generations keep teaching us how to deal with three human emotions – the emotions of encountering mortality, of experiencing loss and mourning, and of accepting, versus wallowing in or denying, experiences of guilt. The Torah and Halakha teach us, on the one hand, to avoid distancing these issues rationally instead of experiencing them emotionally – such as immediately framing the deceased as gone instead of as someone to be mourned and framing the killing of an enemy as dismissible because justified instead of as an experience of taking another’s life. They also teach us, on the other hand, to balance each experience appropriately, in the balance that appropriate for that experience. They teach us to place these inescapable experiences of life in the perspective that these events are both inherent to life and cannot be changed – they teach us that we must absorb these experiences into our broader selves, our selves that live life connected to G-d.

Rav Elisha Ancselovits
Rav Elisha Ancselovits (Yadin Yadin), PhD, is a member of Beit Hillel and teaches Halakha from Tanakh through poskim as Critical Common Sense in the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, in Yeshivat Maale Gilboa – HaKibbutz HaDati, and in Midreshet Ein Hanetziv. On the side, he researches at various universities in Israel, Europe, and the USA. His students now teach variations of this method in several countries.


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