Hukkat: Wisdom of Torah helps us to encounter death


Numbers 19:1-22:1

Judges 11:1-33

The story is told of Rabbi Bunam as he lay dying. One day his wife, Rivka, burst into bitter tears at his bedside as she cared for him. Gently, the rebbe said to his wife, "Why are you weeping? Life itself is only preparation for death. All our lives we are to learn how to be ready to die."

That is the meaning of the verse, "This is the Torah: When a person dies in a tent, all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days" (Num. 19:14, Quoted in Itturei Torah, Vol. 5, P. 124).

This deathbed story is given to us as a real-life commentary on the perplexing verse in this week's parashah, Parashat Hukkat: "This is the Torah — one who dies…" The peculiar syntax of the verse hints at a meaning deeper than the superficial one, according to which the verse would simply be read as an introduction to the Torah's laws and rites of purification following contact with a corpse. In this deeper reading, the verse tells us: "This is the essence of the Torah: to understand the reality of death and loss, and live our lives accordingly."

Read this way, this verse reminds us of the strange verse in Ecclesiastes: "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting. For that is the end of all persons; the living should take it to heart" (Ecc. 7:2).

Far from the embittered voice of cynicism and despair one might hear in this verse, I find a profound teaching about the way in which awareness of our own mortality can enrich our appreciation for the gift of life. The fact that death is a presence in life can lead us to live more consciously, more gratefully, with more compassion and more joy.

This parashah has much to say about life and death, bringing us a description of the mitzvah of the parah adumah, the red heifer. One who has been defiled by contact with a dead body undergoes a purification ritual, whereby he or she is sprinkled with water containing ashes from a carefully selected and slaughtered red heifer.

Many centuries of classical commentators have found this practice enigmatic. But one thing is clear. Through this mitzvah, the Torah prescribes an opportunity by which people who regularly encountered death could cleanse themselves of the smell and feel of death, and emerge refreshed and rededicated to life.

What a stark context to American ways in death. Although decades of work by the death and dying movement have brought some progress, our society still largely struggles mightily to deny the reality of death. Death is fought furiously at all cost, sometimes far beyond the time for letting go. Death, even when it comes naturally, at the tranquil end of a rich life, is seen as a defeat, an outrage, a shock. American culture teaches us to do all we can to shield ourselves from any awareness that death is a part of life.

The mitzvah of the parah adumah, with all of its paradoxical details, includes a simple, profound teaching from a wiser time. Torah knows that, sooner or later, each of us will walk in the valley of the shadow. We are asked not to turn away, not to seal ourselves off, not to arrange to send death far away where none can see it. Rather, we find sacred expression for those times when death crosses our path.

In the Torah's practice, we would prayerfully touch the ashes of a carefully slaughtered animal, gently acknowledging that we must touch death from time to time. But then we would rise, find cleansing and refreshment from our dark encounter, and claim the joys of life again.

The mitzvah of the red heifer is no more. We must find the ways, with the help of Torah, to know when our time has come to acknowledge the presence of death in our lives. And we must find the ways to find comfort, sanctity, and renewal, in order to return to life and joy again after our encounters with loss. May we let Torah's wisdom show us how.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at