The Happy Gravedigger

“In the desert, every eve of Tisha B’Av the sixty year-old men would dig their own graves and lie down in them. They would be dead in the morning.” Midrash

“Why did the Torah teach purification from the dead (parah adumah), and not mention anything else between the 2nd and 40th years of their wanderings? What did they do for 38 years in the desert? They died.” David Nativ, Bible Scholar

Thousands of voices wailed in the night. The spies had given a horrifying report about Canaan. Their fear was contagious. Bodies dropped suddenly to the dry desert floor. Bniim ran through the thick darkness seeking escape. The ground was littered with corpses. Bniim tripped over a bloated body of a large Reuvenite and fell head first into an open grave. The grave had his name on it.

Bniim awoke from his nightmare to find himself in a deep freshly dug grave. He scrambled out and met an early sunrise. The warmth of the sun removed the chill of the nightmare. As he stood above ground he remembered willfully lying there the night before together with several thousand other men. He was outside the Israelite camp, surrounded by thousands of graves. A handful of men rose from the graves. Not ghosts, but pale nonetheless. Dutifully, Bniim grabbed his nearby spade and shoveled sand onto the bodies of those who would never awake.  Other survivors started shoveling as well.

“Hey, Bniim,” one of the survivors called. “You made it again. How many years has it been? You give us all hope.”

“Thirteen,” Bniim answered, looking down at the next grave to cover.

“That’s incredible. And you don’t look a year over eighty,” the man chuckled. “I’m going back to my wife to enjoy one more year.”

The families of those who never awoke arrived at the gravesites, cried, picked up unused shovels and finished the work of their former owners.

A fresh widow approached Bniim.

“Why do you live?” she moaned. “How old are you? Why are you not dying like all the other sixty year-olds? I know that some don’t know when they were born and are off by a year or two, but you are much older.”

“I think I am seventy three. I don’t know why I haven’t died.” Bniim did not raise his eyes from the next grave he was covering.

The widow turned her back to Bniim and shuffled alone back to the camp.

After all the graves were covered, Bniim held his spade over his shoulder and walked back towards the tribe of Judah whistling a happy tune. As the distance between Bniim and the graves grew, he whistled louder.

“Sheba, I’m home,” Bniim called into his modest tent.

“Bniim,” a short plump grey-haired woman ran out of their tent and reached to hug Bniim.

“Wait darling,” Bniim put his hands up in warning. “I’m still defiled from contact with the dead. We’ll have to wait a week before I am cleansed.”

Sheba’s smile dropped for a half a moment only to return a second later. “I’m just happy you made it. I was scared this would be it. I hate this day.”

“How shall we celebrate my added year? I know. Let’s visit your cousins in Asher. I’m sure Chever has some of that strong Moavite wine left.”

“Right now?” Sheba asked

“Life is short.”

“Give me a moment.” Sheba ducked into the tent and several minutes later emerged wearing simple golden earrings and fresh make-up on her lips and cheeks. Side by side Bniim and Sheba walked to the tribe of Asher.

“Bniim?” a younger man stopped him. “You’re still alive? That’s amazing. No wonder you’re looking so cheerful.”

“He always has a cheerful disposition,” Sheba said.

“I guess God still wants to keep my happy self on this earth,” Bniim quipped and continued to the tent of Chever, walking beside Sheba.

Bniim called outside the tent, “Chever, it is time to share some of that wine you’ve been hoarding.”

Chever exited the tent, “Bniim, why am I not surprised you survived?” Chever approached to embrace Bniim, but at his warning he stepped back. “That’s right. You’re still defiled. I don’t understand how you have escaped the curse of the spies. Everyone dies sooner or later, but you live on.”

“Clean living and a sunny disposition,” Bniim smiled. “Now serve me some of that wine of yours. I’m not getting any younger.”

Chever fetched a skin of wine and a half a dozen bronze cups. He put one cup aside for Bniim. “Bring this one back to me after you’ve purified it.” Neighbors came at the sound of the excitement and joined in the drinking. Chever poured generously and soon the area around Chever’s tent was filled with laughter and song.

On the third day after Bniim’s return from the grave, he approached the outskirts of the camp. Eltzafan the Levite with his flowing white beard greeted him.

“Bniim, my friend,” Eltzafan smiled at him, “you have made it again. I presume you are here to be purified from having dealt with the dead.”

“Yes, sir,” Bniim bowed his head, “besides the unpleasant experience of spending a night in my own grave, I assisted in burying those who did not make it.”

Eltzafan took a handful of ashes from a bowl. Biniim noticed that Eltzafan’s pinky was unusually short – like his own. “These are the ashes of the red heifer,” Eltzafan dropped the ashes in a bucket of water. He stirred the water with a long wooden spoon. Eltzafan placed a handful of hyssop in the water, raised it and shook drops of water onto Bniim’s head.

“You must return four days hence,” Eltzafan explained.  “That shall be the seventh day of your having been contaminated. I shall sprinkle the cleansing water on you again and then you shall have to immerse your body and wash your clothing in the stream.”

“I understand and remember,” Bniim said. “I have another question though.”

“What is on your mind?”

“I am grateful for surviving all these years and do not question my good fortune. But it is abnormal and I wonder why I have been spared?”

“It is unusual and I should have inquired more deeply before. Upon your return I shall have some answers for you.”

“Thank you, Eltzafan.” Bniim bowed and backed away from the older man, heading home.

Four days latter, on the seventh day from leaving the grave, Bniim returned to Eltzafan. Eltzafan repeated the sprinkling ceremony, quickly took Bniim aside and found two wooden stools to sit on.

“Bniim, I’ve discovered why you haven’t died,” Eltzafan said rapidly. “It is very simple, though some of the news may be distressing to you.”

“What happened?” Bniim looked around wildly. “What’s the reason? What’s the news?”

“Calm yourself,” Eltzafan motioned with his hand. “It is all good. The unpleasant part is that you are not who you think you are.”

“What does that mean?” Bniim stood up. “Who am I?”

“Bniim son of Harel of the tribe of Judah is not your true lineage.”

“How is that possible?”

“I confirmed your history with my cousin Aaron. Circumstances surrounding your birth were unclear, though recent events have shed light on the truth.”

“What are you talking about? My mother died when I was born and I was raised by my father, Harel, who died before we left Egypt.”

“It is true that your mother died at childbirth. However, she was married previously to a different man. She was married to a Levite by the name of Katzriel. Katzriel died and your mother remarried Harel from Judah a couple of months later. Harel was probably uncertain if you were the son of Katzriel or his own. It explains the name he gave you: ‘whether he is my son’.”

Bniim sat down heavily and looked towards the Tabernacle at the center of the camp.

“Are you well?” Eltzafan asked gently.

“That explains why I haven’t died.”

“Yes,” Eltzafan answered.

“I am a Levite, the son of a Levite. The Levites were not included in the curse of the spies.” Bniim clenched his hands. “My father raised me, never knowing if I was truly his heir. That is sad.” Bniim raised his fist to his mouth, covering the front of his face.

“It is not sad,” Eltzafan said. “Your being a Levite has spared you from the curse. I’m certain Harel would have been proud to have raised the man you have become. You are a good and happy man and you bring cheer to all those around you.”

“Now what?” Bniim unclenched his hands.

“You must immerse in the stream to complete your purification. You must move your tent to the camp of the Levites. You are too old to carry the Tabernacle’s components, but you can sing with the other Levites.”

“Singing in the Tabernacle would be a pleasant change from grave digging outside the camp.”

“There is more, though.”

“What else? I don’t know how many surprises I can handle in one day.”

“Your father Katzriel had another son from a previous wife.”

“Really? Who is he? I would love to meet him.”

“He is a Levite who administers the cleansing waters to those who have touched death. And he has short pinkies as does his brother,” Eltzafan looked into Bniim’s eyes. “It is I, Bniim. I am your brother.”

Eltzafan opened his arms wide. Bniim looked at him in disbelief and then hugged him.

Bniim stepped back. “I’m sorry, now I have contaminated you.”

“Just for one day – and it is well worth it.” They embraced again and held on to each other for a long time.

“To receive life and to find a brother on the same day,” Bniim wept joyfully. “My happiness is complete.”

“I think your happiness is just starting,” his brother whispered.

* * * * * *

Notes: While there are a number of interesting narratives in the portion of this week, the laws of ‘para adumah’ (the red heifer used for purification from death) is one of the least understood and its placement exactly at the interregnum between the 2nd and 40th years in the desert is likewise poorly understood. Especially as there is no other text or narrative for those silent 38 years. David Nativ’s explanation quoted at the top of the story was so compelling to me that I based the story around it.

Secondary Sources:

Special thanks to Rabbis Yitzchak Blau and Assaf Bednarsh for assistance with sources and halacha this week.

The last year in the desert the men did not die on Tisha B’av (the 9th of the month of Av). They thought perhaps they erred on the date. They lay in the graves for several more nights until they saw the full moon and realized the punishment was over. The day was Tu B’av (15th of the month) and became a day of great rejoicing. Taanit 30b.

The Levites did not die as a result of the sin of the spies (they had no representative amongst the spies). Rashi Numbers 1:49

A curious tidbit I found in the sources (I think it was in either Rashbam or Tosafat in Bava Basra 121b), that men who were over 60 years old at the time of the sin did not die in the desert. That leads me to an entirely different theory as to the oversized demographic influence of the Levite tribe in Canaan, with eventually problematic results.

Biblical Sources:

Numbers Chapter 19

2 This is the statute of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer, faultless, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke. 3 And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, and she shall be brought forth without the camp, and she shall be slain before his face. 4 And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. 5 And the heifer shall be burnt in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall be burnt. 6 And the priest shall take cedar-wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. 

9 And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of sprinkling; it is a purification from sin.

11 He that toucheth the dead, even any man’s dead body, shall be unclean seven days; 12 the same shall purify himself therewith on the third day and on the seventh day, and he shall be clean; but if he purify not himself the third day and the seventh day, he shall not be clean.

14 This is the law: when a man dieth in a tent, every one that cometh into the tent, and every thing that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. 15 And every open vessel, which hath no covering close-bound upon it, is unclean. 16 And whosoever in the open field toucheth one that is slain with a sword, or one that dieth of himself, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. 17 And for the unclean they shall take of the ashes of the burning of the purification from sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel. 18 And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent, and upon all the vessels, and upon the persons that were there, and upon him that touched the bone, or the slain, or the dead, or the grave. 19 And the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean on the third day, and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he shall purify him; and he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and shall be clean at even.

About the Author
Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay and a candidate for the Knesset for the Zehut party. He is the author of three books of Biblical Fiction and hundreds of articles and stories dealing with biblical themes. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.