Deciding to Live
What is life? What is death? Consciousness? Unconsciousness? These questions remind me of the words of a song performed by Kansas, an alternative rock band when I was young; it says, “all we are is dust in the wind”. I believe this idea falls short because it refers to the physical aspect of our being. As Bereshit tells us, we are made from dust and to dust we will return, but that is not our essence. It is similar to saying that a tangerine refers only to its peel and not to the fruit that is within it. We are a symbiosis of soul and body, of inanimate earth and the breath of life of the Eternal, elements that when united form L’Nefesh Chaya לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, the living being (Bereshit 2:7).
Interestingly, Parashat Achare Mot begins by recalling the death of Aaron’s sons but does not immediately focus on the issue of how to face death or pain, but instead focuses on an antidote against death. What is that?… living life to the fullest. Living life is the best way of honoring our loved ones who have passed from this world; not sinking into a deep depression, nor stopping living our lives or hoping to “join them one day” like those awaiting a “sweet death”. More poetically, their desire is to keep drowning in the “illusion” that the body of the person who has already left “feels and perceives” and they hope that whoever is on the other side can still see us. I use the word illusion because this type of desire affirms that in death we would still have physical consciousness however we are unable to recognize that a living soul who lacks a body is no longer within time, space and form. When we truly return to the best place – to our God, we will be, as Kohelet 12:7 says, “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath of life returns to God Who gave it…”.
Shemot Raba 48:1 says “Two ships cross the sea. One sets sail from a sheltered port for an unknown destination; the second returns from a hazardous voyage. When the ship arrives at its port, the people rejoice. Such is life too; however, we rejoice when at birth a child is sent to make the uncertain journey to existence…. Shall we not rejoice when the ship finally reaches the safe harbor of God’s peace? and what we are sure of is that one day we will leave, as Kohelet 8: 8 says. ‘There is no one who has power over the breath of life, to retain it, nor is there anyone who has power over the day of his death.’ So, if there is an element that we cannot avoid, nor be exposed to when we are born, why stop living?” As I read these words, I realize that our bodies were never designed to hold eternity within us.
Further on in Vayikra 18:5, our portion says, “Ushmartem et-chukotai ve’et-mishpatai asher ya’aseh otam ha’adam v’chayei bahem; Ani Adonai.” “And you shall observe My statutes and My judgments, for by fulfilling them, man will live by them; I am the Eternal.” Note that this portion tells us that God’s desire is that we live, that we have consciousness and perception of the physical world. Many of us fall into the illusion of seeing this physical world as a blurred image; Rabbi Shaul expressed it well in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see obscurely in a mirror but then it will be face to face.” He understood that how we see this life is similar to viewing a blurred image of ourselves when we look in a mirror. Remember that in ancient times, there were no selfies on a mobile or a glass mirror that allowed us to see a clear image of ourselves. No! Those mirrors held a blurred self-image since we see in the Torah that women brought mirrors of brass for the Mishkan. Imagine dressing up for a wedding today using that type of mirror; it is inconceivable to us!
How then do we live? Allow me to encapsulate Vayikra 19:8 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Eternal.” What sort of commandment is this? love another? love myself? Is love an obligation or a mandate? Isn’t it voluntary? I want to clarify that the word “love” used in this portion is not equivalent to the modern, liberal ideas expressed as “accept, include, integrate, respect, etc.”. These words the world puts in our heads to replace the Word of the Eternal. The word depicted in the Torah for love (ahava) far surpasses these. Love is an action that goes beyond feeling, beyond logic, beyond the self (Eros) or expediency (Philo) or good and positive thoughts, which are sufficient in themselves but must be made concrete through action. Implicitly, this entire portion speaks of how we can practice love on a daily basis.
Here’s a summary of the 27 mishpatim revealed in this portion:
First, we communicate God’s desire to preserve life as He says in 16:2 “Tell your brother…. lest he die.”What would have happened if Moshe never told Aaron or his sons to be careful when entering certain areas of the Mishkan? They could have died.
Second, we cover (atone for) the faults of others, our own and the community (chapter 16).
Third, we honor God by not remaining buried in our past (i.e., uncovering what has already been covered) 17:5-9.
Fourth, we respect the value of life linked to blood (17:11).
Fifth, we obey the Torah (18:4).
Sixth, we keep sexual purity and morality, especially in our relationships with the opposite sex, with family, and all of creation (chapters.18-19).
Seven, we are generous to the poor (19:9-10).
Eight, we speak the truth (19:11-12).
Nine, we exercise social justice (19).
Ten, we control our emotions and feelings towards other human beings, avoid hating them or taking revenge upon them or committing acts of sinat chinam (gratuitous hatred) towards them.
Eleven, we honor and keep the Shabbat.
Twelve, we fear mother and father.
And thirteen, we do not commit foolish acts acting as a common nation (20:23) and not as a holy nation (20:26); here he mentions certain examples such as following necromancy, the cult of Moloch, the cult of demons, among others.
So, in order to live, we must work on removing all the dense darkness that covers us; may we remember that we live in olam (concealment), and it is easy to fall into the deception of the body with its feelings and desires. When we follow the teachings of the Torah, it gives us light, as Tehillim 109:5 says, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light unto my path.”
Is there life after death? It is still a mystery; something that is hidden from us. Everyone will know it on the day we return to God, but in the meantime, are we fulfilling our purpose of living an abundant and happy life in this world? Do we generate life around us? Let us love one another because love is from God (1 Yochanan 4:7-8).