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In this week’s Torah portion, חקת (Chukat), we read of the death of two great leaders of in the formative years of בני ישראל (b’nei yisrael), מרים (Miriam) and אהרן (Aharon), older sister and brother of משה (Moshe). Each one possessed unique qualities and reached the closest relationship to God possible for a human being to attain. Our Talmudic Sages tell us that both died, מיתת נשיקה, by a “kiss” of God which indicates their preciousness and closeness to God.

The Talmud (Moed Katan, 28a) states, “Rabbi Ami said, ‘Why was the death of Miriam adjoined to the section of the Red Heifer? To tell us that just as the Red Heifer atones, so does the death of the righteous atone.’ Rabbi Elazar said, ‘Why was the death of Aaron adjoined to the section of the priestly garments? To teach that just as the priestly garments atone, so too does the death of the righteous atone.’”

What is the understanding of these great Sages? How or in what way can the death of a righteous person atone for another?  Should we rejoice when a good and righteous person passes away because now my sins are forgiven!?

Be very careful not to confuse the above statements by Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Elazar with the philosophy of another religion. Here, we do not find the Talmud suggesting that these righteous leaders died for others’ sins and their death exonerated the sinners. However, while the death of Miriam and Aaron occurred for God’s own reasons, there is some benefit for others, “atonement” in some way.

To understand we must define “atonement.” What does it mean that someone is “atoned?” It means that the cause for the error made by the person no longer exists. There is no need for punishment, a corrective measure by God, since there is nothing any further to correct. How does this situation come about? For mankind it is via the institution of repentance.  In the Torah’s understanding, each individual must take responsibility for his/her actions. A person analyzes his actions and sees the self-inflicted harm and how he becomes more distant from God. In this way man becomes the cause of his own atonement. No one else can do that for the person.  So when atonement is accomplished, the cause of the sin vanishes and so too the pending punishment is avoided.

But what causes us to turn the focus internally and examine our actions? Many things do, for example, the angry reaction by another person to your remarks, not getting the grade in the test you anticipated, or not receiving the raise in salary from the boss. Sometimes our own sense of guilt causes us to reflect on our actions.

Death of a great person can also be a catalyst for introspection and change. What happens to us when we witness or hear of the death of a great individual? Unconsciously, we have placed this person on a “pedestal of holiness.” We view the righteous as having never sinned, although we know that is impossible. But we feel these people are more deeply committed to God’s service and by comparison are more removed from sin than we. Our minds play a trick and lead us to think their perfection should make them immune to all evil, even death. Of course we eventually accept their death but at the moment of learning about their demise we say to ourselves, “If they died and they were righteous, then I, far lower on the righteousness scale, will also die due to my sins.”

It is precisely at that moment of reflection, when the death of the righteous can serve as atonement for us. Nothing magical occurs. Simply, the righteous person’s death becomes a vehicle for us to examine our own actions and identify which ones need to be changed or discarded completely.

The Rabbis of the Talmud were telling us to use death, even the death of our greatest people, for our own benefit here and now. It is the Torah’s philosophy that God designed us and wants us to have that close relationship with him in this existence.  Our own actions sometimes distance us from Him but in His infinite wisdom He created us in such a way that we can use every experience in our lives, even painful ones, for our improvement and benefit.

Of course, the difficult part with all of this is that the responsibility lies with us and no one else. Taking that responsibility is the true measure of a person.

I want to thank my good friend, Rabbi Moshe ben-Chaim for helping me clarify this oft times misunderstood statement by our Sages.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan