Dead Though Alive – Va-ethanan 5780

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

Constantine Reliu left Romania for Turkey in 1992 to look for a job. Other than a brief return to Romania in 1999, he had no contact with his family, including his wife. After years of silence from her estranged husband, Reliu’s wife petitioned the Romanian courts for a death certificate, which she was granted. Her claim, accepted by the court, was that he was assumed to have died in a Turkish earthquake. In 2018, Turkish authorities apprehended Reliu since his residency documents expired. He was deported back to Romania where, to his surprise, he discovered he had been “dead” since 2003! And since the time for making an appeal had also expired, he was left without recourse. Reliu is a man is dead though very much alive.


Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin (d. 1893) also speaks of a case of man who is dead though very much alive. This circumstance is rooted in the language of the Torah when Moses addresses the Israelites before his demise. He reminds his listeners to uphold all the laws of the Torah “so that you shall live” (Deuteronomy 4:1). But understanding the Torah literally is problematic. It would be absurd to believe that only observant Jews will live to inherit the land of Israel since the Biblical narrative includes time after time when the complaining and sinful Israelites are spared God’s wrath. Besides, the covenant includes a promise that the Israelites will be a populous nation; a promise that would be belied if only the observant lived.


Hence, the text must be interpreted metaphorically. Any Israelite who suppresses his or her spiritual side and concerns himself or herself with only material needs is considered as if dead. It is possible to be biologically living but spiritually dead. Thus Moses alerts the people Israel that the neglect of their souls would be catastrophic. And what is necessary for cultivating the spiritual component of each person are the precepts of the Torah.


Needless to say, this message is as important today as it was in the past, if not moreso. Jews are well advised to “live” in the broadest understanding of the word.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rabbi Allen on Twitter