Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Death of a Tzadik (a Righteous Person)

 Adapled fram Midbar Shur pp 346-347

As the Israelites neared the end of their forty-year trek in the wilderness, they lost two great leaders, Miriam and Aharon.  While a tremendous loss for the nation, their passing had a hidden spiritual benefit.

The Torah informs us of Miriam's death immediately after enumerating the laws of the Para Aduma, the red heifer whose ashes were used for purification.  The Talmudic sages already wondered what connection there might be between Miriam's death and the Para Aduma:

Why is the death of Miriam juxtaposed to the laws of the Para Aduma?  This teaches that just as the Para Aduma brings atonement, so too, the death of the righteous brings atonement. (Mo'ed Katan 28a)

While this connection between Miriam and the Para Aduma is well known, the continuation of the same Talmudic statement, concerning the death of Aharon, is less so.

And why is the death of Aharon juxtaposed to [the mention of] the priestly clothes?  This teaches that just as the priestly clothes bring atonement, so too, the death of the righteous brings atonement.

In what way does the death of tzadikim atone for the people? And why does the Talmud infer this lesson from both the Para Aduma and the priestly clothes?

Larger Than life

The principal benefit that comes from the death of tzadikim is the spiritual and moral awakening that takes place after they pass awayWhen a tzadik is alive, his acts of kindness and generosity are not always public knowledge.  True tzadikim do not promote them-selves.  On the contrary, they often take great pains to conceal their virtues and charitable deeds.  It is not uncommon that we become aware of their true greatness and nobility of spirit only after they are no longer with us.  Only then do we hear reports of their selfless deeds and extraordinary sensitivity, and we are inspired to emulate their ways. In this way, the positive impact of the righteous as inspiring role models increases after their death.

While stories of their fine traits and good deeds stir us to follow in their path, certain aspects of great tzadikim - extraordinary erudition and scholarship, for example - are beyond the capabilities of most people to emulate.  In such matters, the best we can do is to take upon ourselves to promote these qualities in our spiritual leadership, such as supporting the Torah study of young, promising scholars.

Two Forms of Emulation

In short, the death of tzadikim inspires us to imitate their personal conduct - if possible, in our own actions, and if not, by ensuring that there will be others who will fill this spiritual void.

These two methods of emulation parallel the different forms of atonement through the Para Aduma and the priestly clothes. Ritual purification using Para Aduma ashes was only effective when they were sprinkled on the body of the impure person; no one else could be purified in his place. This is comparable to those aspects of the tzadik that are accessible to, and incumbent upon, all to emulate.

The priestly garments, on the other hand, were only worn by kohanim (the priests). It was through the service of these holy emissaries that the entire nation was forgiven.  This is like those extraordinary traits of the tzadik that are beyond the capabilities of most people.  These qualities can be carried on only by a select few, with the support of the entire nation.

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