The Legacy of the Righteous – Hukkat 84

D'var Torah | Numbers

The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 28a), includes a curious observation: “Rabbi Ami said: Why was the Torah portion that describes the death of Miriam juxtaposed to the portion dealing with the red heifer? To tell you: Just as the red heifer atones for sin, so too, the death of the righteous atones for sin.” The observation is based on the idea that adjoining passages in the Torah are connected in some fashion. Sometimes the connection is temporal. For instance, that the death of Sarah is reported after the Binding of Isaac is taken to mean that when Sarah heard the report that Abraham intended to sacrifice their son, she was so shocked that she immediately died. Sometimes the connection is thematic. Some idea is common to two adjoining passages. That is the case here. The ashes of the Red Heifer are integral to the purification rites of an Israelites who came into contact with dead. Miriam was a righteous person. Like the Red Heifer, the death of the righteous is purificatory in nature: it purges the people from sin.

Rav Ami’s explanation raises some serious questions. Aside from the similarity to the Christian concept of vicarious atonement whereby Jesus dies as atonement for the sins of humanity, the explanation challenges the principle of fairness: why should a good person die for the sins of another? And more trenchantly, why would God be appeased by the death of the righteous as a remedy for the sins of others? What is it about the blood of the righteous that would satisfy God?

However, Rav Ami was not promoting the idea that the righteous die to save others from sin. Originally, it was a way of coming to grips with the tragic death of so many innocents during years of Roman persecution. It was a way of saying that their deaths were not in vain (TJ San. 30c; Sifre 333). It was never intended to be a doctrine of faith, evidenced by the fact that Rav Ami’s conceptualization was never included in any of the list of essential principles of faith posited by medieval Jewish philosophers. The idea also suggests that it is not the death of the righteous per se that is determinative, but the life of the righteous. The death of the righteous marks the end of any further contribution to the people of which they were a part, but the influence of the righteous is abiding. That influence is what redeems the living. As twentieth century rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote: “The principal benefit that comes from the death of tzaddikim (righteous ones) is the spiritual and moral awakening that takes place after they pass away” (Midbar Shur, p. 346).

The clear directive that emerges from Rav Ami’s statement is that Jews ought to live their lives in such a way that when they die survivors will appreciate their influence and emulate their conduct.

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

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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