“Call the priest!” “call the rabbi!” “where is the chaplain?” last rites and the need to have a religious figure next to someone who is dying or at a funeral, are common. Yet when it comes to life itself, people do not always see religion as strongly associated with the idea of life. The Torah says in this week’s Parsha:
“You shall fulfill My ordinances and observe My statutes, to follow them. I am the Lord, your God. You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord.”
The rabbis (Talmud, Sanhedrin 74) deduce from the words when there is a conflict between observing the laws of the Torah, and life itself—when there is a life-threatening situation that can be averted through violating a commandment of the Torah—one must break the commandment of the Torah to save a life. There are only three exceptions for this: murderer, adultery, and idol worship. Short of those, life always takes precedence.
While this may seem obvious to us, this was in no way obvious in the ancient world. Quite to the contrary: from the Greeks to the Azteks, violence was always very much connected to religion, sometimes even commended. Judaism came and taught that religion is not there to compromise your health; it is there to affirm life and encourage it. It is no coincidence that the quintessential Jewish toast and wish is “l’chaim-to life!”. This toast, made famous by Fiddler on the Roof, exemplifies the value Judaism places on life. In fact, when there is a situation of a conflict between the observance of Judaism and life—choosing life is not a dispensation; it is an obligation. Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), the famous Medieval Jewish rabbi, philosopher—and physician, makes this clear in his code of Jewish law:
“Like all the other commandments, Shabbat is overridden by danger to life. Hence we execute all of the needs of an ill person in mortal danger according to the word of an expert physician in that place on Shabbat…. One must not put off the desecration of the Sabbath in treating a serious patient, as it is written: “If a man obeys them he shall live by them” (Leviticus 18:5), but he must not die by them. From this you may infer that the laws of the Torah are not meant to wreak vengeance upon the world, but to bestow on it mercy, kindliness, and peace…”
(Mishneh Torah, the laws of Shabbat, chapter 2)
Judaism is a life-affirming religion. Pursuing life is not only a necessity in times of need; it is the most important thing we can do at that time. This also explains the outstandingly high regard and deference Judaism has for physicians. Judaism forbids one from living in a city that has no physician living there (Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b) and obliges rabbinic decides to consider all medical recommendations before making decisions.
The great commentator, Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor of Orléans (12th century) in his commentary to Chumash here, notes that the value of life is not something contained to one place or the other. Many of Judaism’s commandments are meant to enhance life, to affirm it, and to make sure we have healthier, happier, and more prosperous lives. In contradistinction to laws and practices that were common among polytheistic and idol-worshipping religions, Judaism is a religion that supports life, values order, wellbeing, and success, and sanctifies every breath.
Why is this so important? Why now?
The Parsha begins with the words: “And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they drew near before the Lord, and they died. And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to your brother Aaron, that he should not come at all times into the Holy within the dividing curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he should not die, for I appear over the ark-cover in a cloud.” (Vayikra, 16)
Our entire Parsha is named for these horrifying words: “Achrei Mot” after the death of Aaron’s sons. It is at times like this that someone may attempt to glorify martyrdom, objectify death, and be dismissive of the value of life. It is why it is so appropriate for the Torah to be teaching us now the value of living by the Torah, following its laws, and enhancing our lives.
Why then does the Torah refer to the death of Aaron’s sons? Rashi sites a teaching that uses—you guessed correctly—a reference to a physician, to explain this:
What does this teach us [when it specifies “after the death of Aaron’s two sons”]? Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah illustrated [the answer] with a parable of a patient whom a physician came to visit. [The physician] said to him, “Do not eat cold foods, and do not lie down in a cold, damp place.” Then, another [physician] visited him, and advised him, “Do not eat cold foods or lie down in a cold, damp place, so that you will not die the way so-and-so died.” This one warned that patient more effectively than the former. Therefore, Scripture says, “after the death of Aaron’s two sons” [i.e., God effectively said to Aaron, “Do not enter the Holy in a prohibited manner, so that you will not die as your sons died”]- [Rashi citing Torath Kohanim 16:3]
The death of Aaron’s sons is in no way seen as virtuous or appealing; it is to serve as a deterrence. God is the physician, urging us to choose life.
Death—especially that of famous or religious people—carries with it the potential for glorification or wannabe copycats. Martyrdom and suffering can suddenly be seen as desirable and sanctified. As the Torah introduces the Parsha with the words “after the death—Acharei Mot— of Aaron’s two sons, risking the possibility that death may be taken lightly. To counter that implication, we are urged to live by the mitzvot—ve’ chay ba’hem—choose life! Le’chayim! To life!