The Faculty of Jewish Studies
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The Weekly Torah Page, 106
Parashat Chaye Sarah 5756
On Life and Death
Our parashah concludes with the description of the death of Abraham. The death of a person is a situation from which most people recoil and are repelled. The final moments of a person's life, the agony of death, are portrayed in dark and sombre colors in literature, poetry and art. In contrast, however, to the social and cultural convention Abraham's death is presented in our parashah in peace and tranquillity; one might even say, in festive language: "Then Abraham expired and died at a good ripe age, old and full of years and was gathered to his people" (Genesis 25:8). Is this appropriate?
The sages of the midrash were aware of this difficulty and some of them chose the simple, obvious answer: righteous people are certain of their life in the World to Come and its rewards: "The Holy One blessed be He shows them [=the righteous] while they are still in this world what will be the reward that will be given to them in the world to come, and their souls are satisfied and they sleep" (Bereshit Rabbah, parashah 62, Theodor - Albeck Edition, pp. 670-671). Their assurance of eternal reward brings a sense of tranquillity at the time of death.
Apparently, however, there were other midrashic sages who knew that the righteous do not always die with a smile on their faces. They therefore muted the motif of satisfaction and fullness in dying by saying: "The pious men of old used to suffer ten and sometimes twenty days from diseases of the intestines to teach us that disease cleanses" (ibid.). In other words, righteous and pious people are not only accepting of death, but also accept with joy a life of suffering and affliction. Happiness in death is a direct result of a life of self-restraint and abstinence; in other words, death is the pinnacle, the peak of man's ascent to perfection. In this way we should understand the midrash.
Does Judaism encourage self affliction and asceticism? Does not the Halachah encourage one to participate fully in society and family life ? It seems that in the history of Jewish thought two approaches co-existed side by side. The one saw social and family life in a positive light, the other had reservations about them, accepting them only when absolutely necessary, as if by compulsion.
Let us examine the components of these two approaches:
1) The "positive" approach is characterized by the following factors:
a) adopting of the "golden mean" in ethics and morality. The extremes are negative and the proper road is that thin middle line which runs through the center, equidistant from the undesirable poles. Some philosophers tried to catalogue all moral characteristics and qualities in an attempt to define the "golden mean" for each of them. For example, courage defines the middle way between cowardice and a lack of initiative on the one hand and recklessness and unnecessary risk on the other. The golden mean negates exaggeration in the direction of self affliction, an isolated existence, and extreme abstinence. b) viewing the social framework as a positive value in forming the spiritual and practical aspects of the individual. c) recognizing the importance of the family unit and thereby granting legitimacy to sexual relations within limits (e.g. - the prohibitions concerning forbidden sexual relationships [arayot] and the laws of ritual impurity [niddah]. This approach is elucidated in Maimonides' introduction to the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), the Eight Chapters (Shmonah Perakim).
2) The ascetic approach demands of man that he draw the full conclusion demanded by the commandment to love G-d and to cling to Him. Accordingly, man must channel all his efforts and energies toward that one goal and devote himself to it entirely. Any distraction diverts Man from his perfection and purpose. Seen in this light, the family framework and social life vex the man who seeks truth and the ultimate level of perfection. The man of perfection must shun the life of the community and isolate himself in order to cleave to G-d. Such an ascetic ethos contains a description of the conflict between the material world and the spiritual, with a condemnation of the material dimension; a presentation of the isolated life as an ideal; finally, it expresses the aspiration to cut oneself off completely from the material world. As an example of this approach Maimonides, portrayed sexual activity as shameful (Guide to the perplexed 2,36; 3,8).
Thus, an internal tension exists in Jewish sources between the approach which affirms a balanced life and the ascetic approach which negates participating in the material sphere. Maimonides' approach is an example of the reflection of this tension in Jewish philosophical sources. One solution given for this tension is as follows: in the early stages of Man's development he must adapt to societal life, but in the higher stages, when Man attains final perfection (as in prophecy, or in state of mystical communion with G-d ) he lives in isolation and asceticism. In our generation there were those who tried to apply this approach, such as Rabbi David Cohen (who was called the Nazirite Rabbi). Nevertheless the attitude in the sources towards self-denial and the image of "the lonely man of faith" teach us that no religious Jew can escape the dualism which characterize the life of any religious person: on the one hand, involvement in commonplace, worldly activity and on the other, withdrawal and total commitment to G-d which brings about a sense of joy even during suffering and the realization that death leads to the ultimate communion with G-d.
The authors of the midrash proposed another solution to the above tension. Man must fulfill all the social and family obligations in his public life; however, in his hidden, innermost aspirations he is to be an ascetic, separated from society and totally devoted to the spiritual life. If we return to the Scriptural account of the death of Abraham, we will find that the Torah linked his life and his death together. The verse preceding the description of his death presents his life in brief: "And these are the days of the years of the life of Abraham which he lived, one hundred and seventy five years" (Genesis 25:7). The author of the midrash wanted to teach us that the "joyful" and "happy" death of Abraham was the appropriate conclusion to a way of life. So a righteous person who dies of suffering ("diseases of the intestines") experiences a kind of purification and cleansing; gladly he goes toward his departure from this life. This is the appropriate conclusion to a life of asceticsism and withdrawal.
And yet, we must keep in mind that among the three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), Abraham is presented as the most sociable; the account of his hospitality to strangers provides ample proof of this. According to the midrash Abraham, in the deepest levels of his soul, aspired to absolute separation from the worldly life, despite the fact that in his own everyday activity he affirmed it and was involved in it. The righteous man observes the precept "and you shall choose life" in his public existence, but in his heart he yearns for complete devotion to G-d. The image of Abraham reflects the inner conflicts and tensions which must beset every religious person already from the dawn of Biblical history.
Prof. Dov Schwartz
Department of Philisophy
For further study: D. Schwartz, "Dmuto Vekavei Ishiyuto shel Mistikan Yehudi Bedoreinu (Al Yomano Hamisti shel Harav Hanazir), Tarbitz 61,(1992), pp. 127-158; Ibid, "Hametach bein Hamussar Hamatun Lamussar Hasagfani Baphilosophia HBiymei Habeinayim", Bein Dat Lemussar, (Ramat-Gan, 1994), pp.185-208.