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Home » Chukat, Death

Chukat: Live or Die

Submitted by on June 20, 2018 – 6:52 pmNo Comment | 2,210 views

What do you think Judaism advocates, that we live for G-d or that we die for G-d?

Throughout history there have been two classic Jewish views. One was to place physical survival above spiritual; to live at all costs even the violation of our sacred Torah principles and cherished Jewish traditions. The other was to prioritise spiritual survival above physical survival; to defy our enemies at all costs and be willing to die for our beliefs. This was the showdown between the Maccabees and Hellenist Jews. This was a point of contention among Jews in Egypt. And it was a major controversy among European Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth century during the enlightenment.

Should we abandon our Judaism and assimilate among the nations or should we staunchly cling to our Judaism, and distinguish ourselves from the nations even on pain of death?

To put it succinctly the question is this, which is better, to live without G-d, or to die for G-d?

Live or Die

The Torah famously tells us to live with the commandments. Our sages thus inferred that we are not expected to sacrifice our lives for the Torah, on the contrary we are meant to live for the Torah.[1] If someone should force us to commit a sin or face death, we must choose to live and commit the sin. Yet, there are three cardinal sins for which we must be prepared to die rather than transgress, namely murder, adultery, and idolatry.[2] This raises a question, if we are meant to live with the Torah, why should we die over these three sins? Which does G-d want, that we live or that we die?

The answer is that from our standpoint we ought to stand prepared to die for the Torah. From G-d’s standpoint, we should be prepared to live with the Torah.

From Below
There are two ways to perceive life. One is to view it as pleasure oriented. It is nice to accomplish something purposeful along the way, but without it, life is still worth living. The other is to view it as purpose oriented. It is nice to enjoy life while we are at it, but without it, life is still worth living.

From the first standpoint, life’s pleasures and comforts are our highest priorities whereas duties and obligations are secondary. From the second standpoint, the opposite is true.

It comes as no surprise that the Torah encourages us to adopt the second standpoint. Life is about purpose and its purpose is to develop an intimate relationship with G-d; the crux of all that is valuable and holy. If fulfilling a commandment connects us with G-d, and transgressing it severs that connection, then we must avoid transgression at any price. Even at the price of life. If life’s only purpose is to connect with G-d, we wouldn’t save our lives at the cost of its purpose.

From Above
Yet, G-d did not create us and place us on earth to for His cause. He placed on earth to live for His cause. Although the prospect of sin is so distasteful that we ought to prefer death over sin, G-d would rather that we commit the sin if we had no choice.

We don’t mean that G-d wants us to run around committing sins. We mean that if someone were to hold a gun to our heads and force us to commit a sin, G-d would want us to commit the sin and live to fulfill more of His commandments, rather than avoid transgression and die.

Yet, from our standpoint, this injunction that we sin rather than die, should be very difficult to fulfill. The prospect of sin should be so distasteful and overwhelming that we should prefer death over sin. When we choose to live, it should be only because G-d forces us to do so.

Thus, there are three sins where G-d “grants” us our wish and does not “require” of us to choose a life of sin. When it comes to the sins of murder, adultery, and idolatry, G-d allows, and even requires, that we do as we wish to do for each Mitzvah.

In other words, the injunction that we sin to spare our life reflects G-d’s desire that we live and fulfill the purpose for which He granted us life. The injunction that we prefer death over murder, adultery, and idolatry, reflects our innate desire to never be separated from G-d, even at the cost of life.

In a sense, we just turned the conventional perspective on its head. Ordinarily we assume that the general injunction to choose life over sin reflects our preference and the injunction to die rather than commit the three cardinal sins reflects G-d’s preference. Here we have gone and turned the tables. The desire to never separate from G-d, is the natural desire of a Jew. The desire to live even at the cost of sin, is never natural to the Jew; it is only accepted out of obedience to G-d.

Red Heifer

When the Torah introduces the laws of the red heifer with the words, “This is the Torah of a man who dies.”[3] The red heifer was the process of purification for those who shared a roof with or contacted a dead body. Such contact conferred ritual impurity upon the living, and the red heifer ritual was the process by which such people were purified. Thus, the ritual is introduced with the words, “this is the Torah of one who dies.”

Yet, our sages were not content with this explanation. They said that it would have made more sense for the red heifer to be introduced with the words, these are the laws for one who dies. That the unusual term Torah is used, tells us that the verse is also offering a general reflection about the Torah itself.

Our sages surmised that the verse implies a connection between the Torah and one who dies. The connection is that the Torah can only be lasting among those who are prepared to die for the Torah.[4]  And although we are required to live with the Torah, that is something we do only out of obedience, not out of preference. When we are prepared to die for the Torah, when our preference is to prefer G-d over life, and we only choose life over sin reluctantly, out of obedience to G-d, we will succeed in giving the Torah a lasting home in our hearts and minds.[5]

Of course, we hope to never actually be tested on this score, but in our hearts of hearts, we need to know the answer to this question. If I should face this choice, what would I want to do?

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma: 85a based on Leviticus 18:5.

[2] Maimonides, Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah, 5:1-2.

[3] Numbers, 19:2.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos, 83b.

[5] This essay is based on commentary from Sefas Emes, Balak, 5634

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