Parshas Re-eh (5771)
By Rabbi Zee
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Re’eh, we find the biblical prohibition against excessive mourning over the loss of a loved one. The Torah commands the Jewish people: “Lo Sisgodedu … you shall not cut yourselves and you shall not make a bald spot between your eyes for a dead person” (see Deuteronomy 14:1).
Interestingly, the Talmud in Yevamos 13b expounds on these same words Lo Sisgodedu – reconfiguring them to read Lo Sa’asu Agudos Agudos - to yield another layer of meaning to the text, i.e. that the Jewish people shouldn’t form separate agudos, or factions. [Practically, this prohibition disallows two Jewish Batei Din, or courts of law, from rendering divergent judgments in one town. For more parameters of this prohibition, see the Talmud in Yevamos 13b-14a.]
The question we need to ask ourselves is why the Torah chose to bring out these two seemingly disconnected ideas – the prohibition against excessive grieving over a dead relative and the prohibition against dividing ourselves into separate factions – through the same words Lo Sisgodedu? What do these two prohibitions have in common?
We can find an answer to this enigma if we analyze the reason the Torah gives why we shouldn’t grieve too much. In the very next verse, the Torah states: ”For you are a holy people to the Lord, your G-d …”.
Nachmanides, the great Bible commentator, explains that since we are a “holy people” who are treasured by G-d, He will ensure that our souls are not lost or destroyed after we die, but will live on in the World to Come. Indeed, it is a fundamental tenet of our faith that although the physical body dies, the spiritual essence of the person (i.e. the neshamah, or soul) ascends after death to a higher place, closer to G-d. It is therefore inappropriate to mourn excessively for a loved one – to the point that we pull out our hair or cut ourselves – for by so doing, we demonstrate a great lack of faith in the eternal life of the departed soul.
[Nachmanides adds that weeping for the dead is permitted, since human nature is such that one usually weeps over the separation from loved ones, even while alive. Hence, when weeping for the dead as well, it is the loss of relationship that prompts the weeping, not any sense that nothing remains once the physical body dies.]
It thus emerges that the underlying message of this biblical prohibition of Lo Sisgodedu, not cutting oneself, is that we should focus on the spiritual and not on the physical. For only someone who thinks that the physical body is all there is and that death is chillingly final would grieve to such an excess, and this prohibition serves to remind us that the spiritual neshamah never dies.
Let’s turn now to the second prohibition alluded to in these same words, as expounded by our sages: Lo Sa’asu Agudos Agudos, You shall not form separate factions.
The basic message of this biblical commandment is that since we Jews are really one people, united under one G-d and sworn to uphold one Torah, we shouldn’t divide ourselves into different groups and factions, which gives the impression that we have multiple deities and sets of laws, G-d forbid.
This factionalizing of the Jewish people can only occur when we focus on the physical differences that exist between us – we look different, dress different, speak different languages, come from different backgrounds, etc. This prohibition serves to remind us that we Jews are spiritually connected to each other in fundamental ways that transcend the physical – we all believe in the same G-d, we all descend from the same Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we all stood together at Mount Sinai and received the Torah - and it is therefore inappropriate for us to divide into separate groups with different laws.
So we see how these two seemingly disparate prohibitions are really one basic idea – to rise above the physical world around us and to see the world through its spiritual reality – and to act accordingly.
I am reminded of this idea every time I see my fellow “secular” Jews and interact with them. We might look very different from each other. We might lead very different lifestyles. We might observe very different levels of Judaism. But no matter how many differences exist between us, that which binds us together spiritually is so much greater.
After all, these differences between secular and religious Jews in dress, lifestyle, and observance are a relatively new phenomenon – maybe 100 years old, if that. For it is an established fact that most “secular” Jews alive today descend from grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-great-grandparents who were, for the most part, fully observant Jews who looked just like all religious Jews look today – and who all believed in the same G-d and Torah that observant Jews do today.
And even though in modern times we Jews have formed separate “factions” among our people, and it appears that we are physically, culturally, and even ideologically quite different from each other, one need not dig too far down to uncover the spiritual reality that we Jews are all the same - one nation united under one G-d and one Torah.
This reality most often manifests itself when danger threatens us as a nation or during times of death and mourning – when even the most secular Jew turns to G-d and Judaism for answers and for consolation. Sometimes, it comes out when a less-affiliated Jew “bagels” an observant Jew, which is his way of letting the other Jew know that he too is part of Judaism and the Jewish people.
The Torah’s commandment of Lo Sisgodedu serves as a constant reminder that we Jews are all bound together with a spiritual bond that no physical differences can ever break. And we believe than any day now the Messiah will come and reveal that special unity of the Jewish people in all its glory, bringing all Jews - body and soul - together in the Land of Israel, just as we were 3323 years ago when we stood together as one nation at Mount Sinai.
[Based on the commentary of the Sheim MiShmuel to Parshas Re’eh]