> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Mayanot

Give Me Liberty; Give Me Death

Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

The Book of Bamidbar up to our Parsha is a record of the doings of the Exodus generation marooned in the desert in punishment for the commitment of the sin of the spies. From the beginning of Parshat Chukat, the Book turns into a description of the conquest of Trans-Jordan and records the doings of the next generation, known as the 'Baei Aretz', the generation that 'comes to Israel.' Parshat Chukat marks the transition of the generations.

"The children of Israel, the whole assembly, arrived in the wilderness of Zin in the first month and the people settled in Kadesh." (Numbers 20:1-2)

Rashi comments that the emphatic phrase, "the whole assembly," is inserted into the text to let us know that by the time of this encampment all those that had been sentenced to die in the desert had duly passed away, and all those who encamped in the wilderness of Zin belonged to the succeeding generation and would all live to witness the entry into Israel.

As part of the transition of the generations, the deaths of the great leaders of the Exodus generation, Miriam and Aaron - as well as the irreversible verdict that condemns Moses to die on the wrong side of the Jordan and is the harbinger of his imminent demise - all appear in our Parsha. The theme of death positively dominates the first part of Chukat.


Perhaps because of the dominance of this theme, it is in this week's Parsha that we are formally given the laws of the "red heifer" - the mandatory purification process from the spiritual contamination caused by the contact with death that is imposed on every Jew. Contact with death renders a Jewish individual tamey, or "ritually impure."

These laws are clearly out of place. The laws of the red heifer had been issued prior to the inauguration of the Tabernacle in the second year of the Exodus (Talmud, Gittin 60b). A tamey person is not allowed to enter the premises; the only way to get rid of the tumah is by being sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer as described in our Parsha, which is a record of the events that transpired in the fortieth year of the Exodus. By this point in time the law of the red heifer had been in force for 38 years.

The reason for their insertion at this particular juncture is due to the fact that as these laws describe the effects of the encounter with death upon the living, they rightfully belong in the Parsha that is all about death.

Tamey and tahor - the states of "spiritual impurity" and "spiritual purity" - are both Torah phenomena. They do not adhere to the world of nature. The association between the tamey force and death only affects the people who voluntarily assumed an added spiritual dimension with the acceptance of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Non-Jews do not become tamey when they encounter death and have no need of the services of the 'red heifer.'

Jews not only live differently than other human beings, they die differently as well; for them death is associated with tamey.


The process has its origins way back in the Garden of Eden and we must return there to get a glimpse into its workings.

"But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it you shall surely die." (Genesis 2:17)

Nachmanides (ibid.) comments: This passage implies that death is not a natural phenomenon but is the consequence of sin; this implication does not jibe with the facts according to the Torah's own presentation of them. According to the Torah's own description, man was formed in a fashion that rendered death an inevitable natural phenomenon:

"By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground from which you were taken: for you are dust and to dust shall you return." (Genesis 3:19)


How can the Torah state that in the absence of sin there would have been no death?

He explains: It was the body that was taken from the dust of the earth, not the soul. The soul comes from God (see Genesis 2:7) and is inherently eternal. While the soul is in the body it has the capacity to sustain man, and the separation between body and soul that is the essence of death is not inevitable. Theoretically the body and the soul could remain together as an integral unit through eternity. Creation is not a natural phenomenon but an act of God's will; the disintegration of created items into their separate components is never inevitable. If God chooses, he can maintain the integrity of the combination forever.

We should interpret God's injunction to Adam as a warning that it is not His will to keep the body and soul together eternally if he violates the commandment not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In other words, when man sinned God allowed him to revert to a natural state in which death was indeed inevitable.

But this still leaves matters unclear; Nachmanides seems to say that the power to grant the body eternal life is inherent in the soul and does not require further positive input. Why would man die as a result of committing a sin if he possesses a soul that is capable of sustaining his body throughout eternity? After all, God never threatened to kill man if he sinned. He informed him that death was an inevitable consequence of sin. But how would this consequence manifest itself in light of the fact that man has an eternal soul?


Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto unravels the mystery in his work "Derech Hashem." (See Part 1, Chapter 3.) He compares the union of the body and the soul to a shotgun marriage. The soul is permeable to Divine light and desires nothing more than to bask in the great spiritual joy it experiences when it connects to the Divine light that emanates from God's essence. No other possible experience of any sort could match the intense joy that can be experienced by connecting to the Divine Presence; consequently the soul finds attachment to material things repulsive. Such attachments weaken its ability to connect with the Divinity and cause it pain and frustration.

The body as it is originally formed is entirely impermeable to Divine light and does not experience any sensation at all when it comes into contact with it. Unlike the soul, which rejects any sort of union with the body, the body is not repulsed by the soul or by the Divine light to which it is attached; it is merely totally insensitive. The body is only interested in the material, because it is only the material world and the physical pleasure and pain that it provides that have the capacity to stimulate it. It is pursuing stimulation, not physicality as such.

The purpose of the arranged marriage between these opposites is two-fold. First of all, the inner struggle that results from being pulled in opposite directions transforms the human consciousness into a battleground and compels human beings to exercise their free will powers through every waking moment. But this marriage of opposites also has enormous positive potential. It is the body-soul bond that enables us to experience our ultimate reward in the World to Come.


For the soul was created with the capacity to transform the body. Although the body in its original state is opaque to the Divine Light and serves as an obstacle to connecting with God's Presence that must be overcome by the soul, the soul can overpower the body's insensitivity. It can make the body permeable to the light of spirituality as well.

Although the body can never attain the state of purity that would allow it to connect directly with the Divinity, in its altered, spiritually transparent state, the body also feels the stimulation of the spiritual light that emanates from God and pours into it through the medium of the soul to which it is connected. The body is therefore also open to the experience of spiritual Joy. Unlike the antipathy of the soul towards the material, the body has no inherent opposition to spirituality. It is merely insensitive to spiritual feeling and therefore naturally indifferent. When it becomes sensitized to spiritual stimulation it loses its preference the material entirely.

The human being, who is a combination of a soul in such a sensitized body, is capable of cleaving to God in his entirety. No longer does the body attempt to detach the soul from its union with the Divine in its attempt to find stimulating experiences. Living with God in this state of cleavage is the eternal bliss that is called Olam Haba, or the World-to-Come. Inherently then, there is no need to separate the body from the soul, which is the state known as death. When Adam was created there was a better option than death available. He could have empowered his soul to transform his body and entered the state of eternal bliss we call the World to Come directly, without the need to experience death at all.


The Ramchal goes on to explain that when Adam sinned, this process of the transformation of the body by the soul had to be somewhat revised.

Due to the contamination caused by sin, the soul could no longer entirely transform the body without Divine assistance. Allowing it to accomplish the incomplete transformation of which it was still capable would doom man to exist forever in a state of partial impurity, never fully able to enjoy his connection to God. God considered it preferable to deprive the soul of the power to purify and transform the body during a person's lifetime altogether.

Instead, the soul is forced to separate from the body in death, and is sent to a place we refer to as Gan Eden while the body disintegrates back to its basic elements to be purified by God. At the end of days, God will recreate the body in its pristine pre-sin state and only then will the soul be allowed to transform it and make it transparent to the light of holiness. Once the contamination of sin is entirely removed, the soul will be able to do the full transformation job once again. Meanwhile the soul waits in Gan Eden, which is a spiritual world. In the World to Come we will be reunited with our bodies and enjoy eternal bliss as corporate beings once again.

This means that just as we are uniquely individual and different from one another today, we will retain this individuality in the World to Come as well. The extent and quality of the transformation that each Soul will affect on the purified body to which it is attached will depend on the spiritual power it has amassed during its working life. This power is drawn from the observance of the Torah and its commandments and its intensity corresponds to each person's level of observance during the period he was possessed of free will, his present lifetime on earth.

To sum up: as man was originally created, the transformation of the body was intended to be a dynamic ongoing process. Following Adam's sin, God was no longer willing to allow the soul to affect the transformation of the body as an ongoing process, which would have allowed the performance of every Mitzvah to be reflected simultaneously in the appropriate transformation of the body. As a result the body remains opaque to the divine light during our earthly life no matter how many Mitzvot we may observe and even the most deserving of men is unable to step directly into eternal life. We are all doomed to suffer the disintegration of death.


Let us consider the implications of all this. The body was created so that it is opaque to the Divine light by nature. But the same nature that lends the body its opacity also provided the soul with the natural ability to penetrate this opacity and make the body permeable to the Divine light. Its present inability to affect this transformation amounts to forcible restraint of a power that the soul inherently possesses. You can only restrain nature by applying force. When you throw a ball up in the air, unless you continually exert force to keep it up, gravity will force it to fall. Unless God exerts force to restrain the soul from transforming the body, the soul would automatically affect this transformation and stave off death.

On our level of reality God applies force through the medium of an agency. When God parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds He executed the miracle through the agency of a powerful wind. When He sustained the Jews in the desert for 40 years He did it through the provision of a miraculous food, the manna. Upon examination it turns out that there are two agencies through which this restraining force is channeled. One is the power of tamey, or "spiritual impurity" - otherwise known as the Angel of Death whose aftereffects must be dealt with through the 'red heifer' process. The other is the power of tahor, its diametric opposite. They are both described in our Parsha.


Let us follow the rule of focusing on the positive first and deal with the tahor force.

We learned that 903 different types of death were created in the world ... the most difficult one, [death] by strangulation; the easiest through a kiss [the origin of the phrase 'the kiss of death']. Strangulation is comparable to pulling thorns out of a tight ball of wool; others liken it to pulling a thick rope through a very narrow hole. Death by means of a kiss feels like picking up a hair floating in a cup of milk. (Talmud, Berachot 8a)

According to the commentators, the explanation of why there are so many different types of death is the following: death is the extraction of the soul from the body; the degree of force required to pull body and soul apart depends on the intensity of the attachment that exists between them.

Moses, Aaron and Miriam each died by means of the kiss of death described by the Talmud (Talmud, Baba Batra, 17a). Maimonides explains the symbolism of comparing death to a kiss (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:51): the spiritual attachment to God of these great prophets was so intense that the tiniest increase in the degree of their attachment made it impossible for them to separate from the Divinity entirely. The 'kiss': God raised the level of attachment by increasing the intensity of the Divine light shining into their souls; their souls automatically detached themselves from their bodies, engulfed by the intense joy generated by the strengthened connection.

We could also view the process in terms of the imagery we have developed in this essay. If the union between the soul and the body remains a shotgun marriage the way the Ramchal described, it should be the easiest thing in the world to dissolve it by simply allowing the parties to separate. Upon being given permission to leave, the soul should be eager to fly out of the body to return to the Divine light; the body should automatically fall back to earth lifeless and inert. Why is the application of any sort of force necessary at all?

Were it not for complications caused by the ties that were forged between the soul and the body during a person's lifetime, the simple painless form of death through the 'kiss' would suffice for everyone. There would be no need for the tamey force or for the Angel of Death. There would be no 'red heifer'. But neither the soul nor the body control the dynamics of the relationship that develops between them. The soul-body connection results in the formation of an 'I', a human being with free will, and it is the free will decisions taken by human beings that create the sort of bond between the body and soul that only the Angel of Death can sever.

Every free will decision that expresses a preference for the material and the physical over the spiritual, every free will violation of a Torah obligation, amounts to a voluntary attachment of the life force of the soul to the body and cements the bond between the two. Before such free will decisions were taken the description of the body-soul relationship as a shotgun marriage arranged by God may have been apt, but free will decisions transform the union into a marriage of choice.

Being forced into marriage does not necessarily prevent a couple from falling in love. It is one thing to dissolve an enforced marriage where the parties detest each other. It is quite another matter to dissolve a union that has been cemented by the ties of love and affection. The more free will decisions a person makes to attach his soul to the body, the more difficult it becomes to separate.


That is why there are two ways to die. In the case of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, there were no free will decisions in the direction of materialism to overcome; there was no affectionate attachment of the soul to the body whatever. All that was needed to bring about their separation was a loosening of the binding force that held them together. A tiny increase of the Divine light, as soft as a kiss, is sufficient to accomplish the job. There is no need for the Angel of Death and the tamey force. Nachmanides writes that for this reason the graves of tzadikim are not tamey (Bamidbar, 19:2).

However, in the case of rest of us who are not such great tzadikim, this separation has to be accomplished differently and necessarily involves some degree of pain. When the union between the soul and the body is at least partially endorsed by our own free will decisions, a part of the soul does not wish to leave the body at all; it is no longer being forced to remain but has become genuinely attached. Separation cannot be accomplished by simply increasing the intensity of the Divine light shining into the soul. That may be enough to release the soul that is only reluctantly attached in the first place, but it cannot free the soul that has become welded to its body by a lifetime of free will decisions in preference of materialism over spirituality.

For those of us who have welded our souls to our bodies by freely investing some of our spiritual energy into material things, not only would a slight increase in the tahor - pure - force be inadequate to engineer a separation, even the application of a great deal of it is not an option; instead of separating the soul from the body, such a great tahor force would begin to transform the body to make it permeable to the Divine light, a process that has been disallowed by Divine policy for the present for the reasons cited earlier.

An increase in the tahor force cannot bring about the separation but an increase in the tamey force can. The Angel of Death upsets the uneasy equilibrium between body and soul by intensifying the tamey force to such a great extent that the soul is unable to bear further contact with the body. It becomes compelled to pull itself away from a body contaminated by a great increase in the tamey force despite the fact that it has become welded to it. To survive, the soul must draw Divine energy from God. In face of the increased tamey force in the body it cannot connect itself at all. It is either separation or death. Imagine the anguish of breaking bonds that have been formed over an entire lifetime in the split second of death!


This thesis concerning death illuminates the incidents associated with the deaths of Aaron and Miriam recorded in our Parsha: the drawing of water out of the rock, (Numbers 20:1-14), and the attack by the Caananites (Numbers 21:1-3).

The shotgun marriage between the body and the soul expresses itself in the soul's acquired need for food, water and shelter. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh Hachaim, Gate II) explains that although the soul itself has no need for physical sustenance, while it is married to the body it also becomes sensitized to the body's basic needs. As long as it is joined to the body, the deprivation of the body affects the soul as well. Physical needs become somewhat spiritualized.

Rashi (Bamidbar 20:2) explains the reason why a sudden shortage of water is recorded in the very next verse following the one describing Miriam's death; during the entire 40 year desert sojourn the water miraculously poured out of the rock in the merit of Miriam. In fact the rock out of which it gushed was called Miriam's well. Similarly, the Divine cloud that surrounded the Jewish camp and made it invulnerable to attack was there in the merit of Aaron (see Rashi, Bamidbar 21:1). It therefore disappeared upon his death and the Jews became vulnerable to the Caananite attack in the very verse following the description of Aaron's death. Finally, while this is not recorded in our Parsha, the Rabbis also inform us that the manna fell in the merit of Moses and stopped on the day he died.

These three giants of the Desert generation, who all died through the kiss of death, formed no free will attachments at all to the world of the body. The normal source of the inputs of food water and shelter is the earth. But for people who have never attached themselves to the earth through the exercise of their free will these basic requirements of life are entirely spiritualized and they are able to deliver these physical inputs by bringing them down from heaven through the power of their souls. When their souls separated from their bodies these heavenly inputs naturally stopped at once.

The lesson we have learned from this essay is that the pain of death is inversely proportional to the state of holiness a person maintains during life. The fact that we are so terrified of death is demonstrative of the powerful bond we have all forged with the material pleasures associated with our bodies. Our spiritual problems stem from the fact that we have voluntarily transformed a marriage of convenience into a love match.

1 2 3 2,901

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram