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Parashat Shoftim 5776: About death

One of the subjects that fascinate humankind is death. There are those that are afraid of it and that fear can protect us but can also bring us to unpleasant places. There are those who see in death a source of inspiration, pushing us to be good people and live good lives because we know our time is limited. It is Shakespeare, who through Hamlet takes the skull of the fool and wonders about the common destiny of fools and kings, and whether there is any meaning to all of it. A message we can find in Kohelet: “And sweet is the light and good for the eyes to see the Sun. Because if many years will man live he will be happy and he will remember the days of darkness, because more they will be that come to him”. In our Parashah we have a connection with death as well: “When you enter the land Hashem your God is giving you, you are not to learn how to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There must not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, a diviner, a soothsayer, an enchanter, a sorcerer, a spell-caster, a consulter of ghosts or spirits, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is detestable to Hashem, and because of these abominations Hashem your God is driving them out ahead of you. You must be wholehearted with Hashem your God”. What it means to consult the dead? Rashi anticipated Shakespeare and commented this verse saying that to consult the dead is to raise their memory or the one that ask questions to a skull. Of course the Torah didn’t refer to Hamlet, who maintains a philosophical reflection using the skull as inspiration, but to the original background of the prohibition, namely the practice of going to a tomb or laying down on it and to look for the presence of the spirits of the dead in order to ask them questions or ask them to intercede in favour of the consulter. That’s the case of King Saul, when he visits the Witch of Endor in order to communicate with the Prophet Shmuel, Samuel, who died a short time before. That’s the practice that the Torah considers an abomination, together with other pagan practices like human sacrifice. But what does it says to us? Even if there are still people around that claim to be able to contact spirits, or practice different kinds of divination, in practice most of us are far from that world, and probably many of us don’t believe those things are even real. Even though, there are still many people in our society and people, that follow a practice close to those mentioned in the Torah: visiting graves. Some people even fly long distances to visit the graves of famous rabbis, in order to ask him to intercede in the person’s favour in front of God, to convince God to grant him his wish. Other people wanting a match, a shiduch, will go to the tomb of a tzadik in order to gain the attention to God to his request. We have even people that go to the tomb of a family member to ask for mediation with God. This practice is very old and enrooted in the Jewish People’s popular culture. Maybe the most famous example are the hundreds of people that fly to Ukraine to visit Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s tomb, especially for Rosh Hashanah, to ask him for mediation and forgiveness from God. We can claim, though, that the spirit of the prohibition of the Torah, if not the prohibition itself, stands in front of this practice. Our verses finished with the words “you must be wholehearted with Hashem your God”, the Torah expects from us to trust only the Creator of the World, the One who does everything that is done. We don’t meet God through dead people, astrology, amulets or spells. We get close to God only through good deeds, the keeping of the commandments and the study of the Torah, that’s the Jewish way. To visit the tomb of a family member or an important figure of the past is a worthy action, if done in order to enhance our consciousness of his or her memories, the good deeds that person did and the things we can learn from him or her. The good things they did in life and not whether they can do something from us after their death.

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