Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

The Denial of Death Nedarim 83 Psychology of the Daf

Our Gemara on Amud Beis quotes a verse from Koheles (7:2) as a proof text that the loss of ability to attend a funeral is considered a form of suffering:

ט֞וֹב לָלֶ֣כֶת אֶל־בֵּֽית־אֵ֗בֶל מִלֶּ֙כֶת֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית מִשְׁתֶּ֔ה בַּאֲשֶׁ֕ר ה֖וּא ס֣וֹף כל־הָאָדָ֑ם וְהַחַ֖י יִתֵּ֥ן אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting; for that is the end of every man, and a living one should take it to heart.

The Gemara darshens the part of the verse, “and a living one should take it to heart”, as taking to heart the reciprocity of life:

אָמְרִי מִטּוּמְאַת מֵת נָמֵי אִית לַהּ צַעֲרָא דִּכְתִיב וְהַחַי יִתֵּן אֶל לִבּוֹ וְתַנְיָא הָיָה רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר מַאי דִּכְתִיב וְהַחַי יִתֵּן אֶל לִבּוֹ דְּיִסְפּוֹד יִסְפְּדוּן לֵיהּ דְּיִבְכּוּן יִבְכּוּן לֵיהּ דְּיִקְבַּר יִקְבְּרוּנֵיהּ

The Gemara rejects this argument: The Sages say in response that a woman who vows that impurity imparted by the dead is forbidden to her also suffers pain as a result. 

How so? As it is written: “And the living shall lay it to his heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2), and it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And the living shall lay it to his heart”? 

This means that one who eulogizes others when they die will in turn be eulogized when he himself dies; one who weeps for others will be wept for when he himself passes away; and one who buries others will himself be buried upon his passing. 

However, the simple reading of the verse simply means to say that the wise person, while alive, will remember his mortality. The Shalah (Aseres Hadibros, Torah Ohr 4) notes that this verse emphasizes “והחי” “the one who is living”, instead of merely referring to him as “the person” אדם or איש . One might say, the key is that a living person, who is fully alive, can grapple with the frightening aspects of death. Zohar Chadash (Ruth 696) states that awareness of death instills living, that is, the righteous who are mindful of the limits of the distractions of the physical world can embrace activities that bring eternal life. Kli Yakkar (Bereishis 7:1) notes the significance of Mesushelach’s passing right before the Flood.  It was one last attempt to warn mankind about their approaching doom.  Seeing the death of this great man was one final prompt to break the denial of death.

We live through our feelings. If we don’t feel, then we are disassociated and not really alive. Perhaps this the reason for the word heart in the verse, he must feel, to really be a living person.

Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic, “The Denial of Death”, posits that humans are subconsciously aware of their death, and need ways to feel immortal. For some, this is a drive toward spirituality and meaning as a way to transcend, while for others the ironic opposite occurs: A never ending pursuit of physical pleasures to distract from the pain and emptiness. Becker observes, with the modern day destruction of religious symbols of meaning, humans have lost this “immortality project”, and are driven even more to orgiastic extremes. These two archetypes of human behavior are alluded to in Ruth Rabbah (2:20), which gives you the backstory of what happened to Arpah upon her return to Moav. While we know Ruth’s choice to stay with Naomi brought her on a trajectory of greater spiritual growth, leading her to become a matriarch in the Davidic dynasty, Arpah engages in an orgy “100 philistines”, and a “dog”. (Chazal do certainly have a way with words.  I would not take this literally, but rather the rabbis are referring to how low a person in Arpah’s situation can go,  if one stubbornly continues to deny losses and fear of what is happening.) Having failed to grab the brass ring of spiritual success, Arpah doesn’t merely level off. Instead she endless chases a high of sexual oblivion.  This is not only about women, men do this too. Imagine the Lothario, believing that he will be immortal, never wanting to settle down with one person.  All the while perhaps claiming, he is “just trying to find the right one”, but like a modern day Achashveirosh with a smartphone, swipes right or left, choosing a new partner every night.

Folks, we can choose life, or death. As it states (Devarim 30:19):

הַעִדֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֒רֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים 

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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