“The Death of Aaron” Parashat Tazria – Metzora 5777

Parashiot Tazria and Metzora pertain nearly exclusively to the laws of ritual purity and impurity that determine when a person becomes ritually impure and how he is subsequently purified. Ritual purity of houses and clothing is also discussed. Much of the conversation revolves around tzara’at, a skin disease often mistakenly identified as leprosy.

Ritual purity is a difficult concept to get one’s head around. What makes something “pure”? Is this even a question that we should be asking? The Torah contains numerous laws that are supra-logical, meaning that they defy human understanding. Perhaps the laws of ritual purity belong in this category. This view is espoused by Rav Sa’adya Gaon, writing in “Emunot v’Deot”: “As for keeping distance from things unclean and impure, we say that the human body has no impurity in it but is entirely pure; for impurity is not something tangible or something demanded by our intelligence.”

A more rational approach would begin by noting that most of the causes of spiritual impurity are somehow related to death. These include a human corpse[1], a dead animal, a person who contracts tzara’at[2], a man who has suffered a seminal emission and a menstruating woman. I remember my teacher Rabbi Tuvia Perlman explaining to me as a thirteen year old boy that when life could have been created but, for whatever the reason, was not, then the wasted potential is equivalent to death. This is precisely the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, as written in the Book of Kuzari [2:58-59]: “Tzara’at and [seminal] issue are occasionally the consequence of contamination by corpses. A dead body represents the highest degree of malignancy and a leprous limb is considered dead. It is the same with lost sperm because it had been endowed with living power, capable of creating a human being. Its loss, therefore, forms a contrast to the living and breathing.” He even brings a pseudo-scientific proof for his theory: “Experience has taught that their touch deteriorates such fine things as pearls and wine. Most of us feel influenced by the vicinity of dead bodies and graves and our spirits are depressed as long as we find ourselves in a house in which there is a corpse.”

It is more difficult to explain why a woman who has just given birth is also rendered ritually impure. It would seem that birth is about as far as a person can get from death. Rav Yuval Sherlo addresses this quandary by suggesting that “life and death are bound up one with the other. In a world which is entirely good there is no death, but neither is there life. The Torah expresses the fact that light and shadow depend one on the other and are inseparable one from the other. The story of a person’s death is also the story of his life, for as soon as a person enters the cycle of life, death is at his heels”. This explanation is admittedly morbid and reminds me of the description of the rising sun in the song “Time” by Pink Floyd: “The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older; shorter of breath and one day closer to death”. As long as life and death are intertwined, they remain two sides of the same coin, and so even the creation of life is tinged with impurity[3].

In the 2010 National Football League Draft, tight end Aaron Hernandez was picked by the New England Patriots in the fourth round. Along with Rob Gronkowski, another tight end drafted in an earlier round, Hernandez and the Patriots ran roughshod over the rest of the league in an undefendable two tight end offense. They had the first tight end pair with over 2000 receiving yards in one season. Two years later, Hernandez, now a rising star, signed a $41 million contract, the second-largest ever for a tight end. He donated $50,000 to a charity, touching the heart of the team’s owner, Bob Kraft. Hernandez purchased a stunning home near Boston. At the age of twenty three, he had it all.

And then he threw it all away. In June of 2013, Hernandez was arrested on a murder charge. The body of his friend, Lyle Odin, had been found in an industrial park about a mile from Hernandez’s mansion, with multiple gunshot wounds to the head and chest. Meanwhile, Hernandez had erased all of the footage from the security cameras around his home to cover his tracks. While no motive could be found, Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole. Apparently he had killed Odin just because he felt like it. Meanwhile, other earlier acts of violence were now being attributed to Hernandez, the most prominent of which was a murder in which five shots were fired into a car stopped at a red light, killing two of the passengers. Last week Hernandez was found not guilty of that double murder. Three days after the verdict was given, Hernandez tied his bed-sheet to the bars around the window of his cell, slipped the other end around his neck and hung himself. In the words of our Sages, ‘M’igra rama l’bira amikta” – “From the crest of a high mountain to the bottom of a deep pit”.

Hernandez did not start clean – he had a background of violence. At the University of Florida he was involved in several alleged scrapes with the law, including a bar fight and drug use, and he was later eyed as a possible “person of interest” in an unsolved 2007 shooting. Many feel that with a more pristine background he might have been drafted in a much higher round. Others tried to pin his murderous behaviour on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma experienced by football players. My son, Amichai, believes that the story of Aaron Hernandez should become required reading for every new NFL recruit, to show them what can happen if they become intoxicated by their newly found fame and fortune.

But what can the armchair quarterback[4] learn from this story? When I think of the death of Aaron Hernandez, seemingly a victim of his own success, I am reminded of the words of the Karliner Rebbe[5], who said “There are no innocent victims. If you are born on this world you are guilty, period. Your birth certificate is proof of guilt.” The Karliner Rebbe’s words are hauntingly similar to the above explanation of Rav Sherlo: Man is born with the gift of unlimited potential but he is given ownership of this gift for a limited time only. Consequentially, the more potential a person is born with, the greater his eventual demise looms[6]. There is so much that this person can accomplish in this world and yet he has the same finite lifespan as a person who will make much less of a mark. His entire life is tinged with a vague feeling of insecurity, always unsure of whether his time should be better spent and whether or not he is doing enough. His immense potential, instead of prodding him forward, drags him back.

What the tragedy of Aaron Hernandez can teach us is that great potential does not have to be a great burden. The Mishnah in Tractate Avot [2:16] teaches us “You are not required to [accomplish all of your life’s goals] but neither are you allowed to stop trying.” Rav Haim Sabato explains that no person is capable of learning all there is to learn, of doing all there is to do. But that which we do choose to study, that which we do choose to do, then this must be performed with all of our energy and to the best of our ability. If we never become the person that we can be, we must at least attempt to become the person that we are.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] A human corpse is called “avi-avot ha’tum’a” – “father of all sources of impurity”. There is nothing more impure than a dead body and there is nothing that can transmit impurity like a dead body.

[2] When Moshe prays to Hashem to heal his sister, Miriam, who has tzara’at, he asks [Bemidbar 12:12] “Let her not be like the dead, which comes out of his mother’s womb with half his flesh consumed!”

[3] The Ba’al HaTurim suggests that a woman who has given birth is impure for seven days that correspond to the seven days of mourning after the death of a close relative.

[4] An armchair quarterback is a person who prefers watching sports on television than actually participating in them.

[5] Not to be confused with the holy Rabbi Aharon ben Jacob Perlov of Karlin.

[6] Make no mistake, we are not all born with the same capabilities. Rav Zusha from Hanipol is quoted as saying “In the coming world they will not ask me ‘Why were you not Moshe?’ They will ask me ‘Why were you not Zusha?’”

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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