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The Death of Despair

07/07/2015 04:52:37 PM


Sitting in shul last shabbat listening to the Torah reading, I began to reflect on the Parah
Adumah ­ the red heifer used to purify a person after being deemed impure via contact with a
corpse. It is death that brings impurity and the Red Heifer that removes it.

Today, we do not have the capacity to apply the laws of the Red Heifer and consequently, we
cannot remove the impurity of death. Does this mean that the laws of the Red Heifer do not offer
us any guidance today? Can the biblical defeat of the impurity of death not teach us anything?
It occurred to me that while we cannot remove the impurity of actual death, we can however
contend with one aspect of death, something that death represents, the loss of hope. When a
person dies, hope for their future dies with them. Perhaps a greater tragedy than death itself, is
self imposing the hopelessness of death on the lives of the living ­ on our lives.

Many of us (those affected by the flood and many others as well) feel a sense of hopelessness,
borne from the overwhelming tasks ahead, frustration and uncertainty.

When commanding the laws of the Red Heifer, the Torah says: "Speak to the Children of Israel
and they shall take to YOU a perfectly red cow". According to Rashi, the Red Heifer is ascribed
to Moshe and will eternally be called "the cow that Moses prepared in the wilderness." It is
interesting to note that our sages say "Moshe Rabbeinu Lo Met" ­ Moses our teacher did not
die. Of course, physiologically, Moshe did die, what remains alive are the eternal teachings of
Torat Moshe ­ the Torah of Moses, including his teachings that we can remove the impurity of
death; according to this understanding, the loss of hope. Even as Moshe is no longer with us
and even as the actual laws of the Red Heifer are not applied, the conceptual notion of
defeating hopelessness remains.

The Red Heifer reminds us that even when confronted with despair and struggle, we mustn't let
the death of hopelessness take over ­ hopelessness can be overcome.

I was once again confronted with the importance of not allowing sorrow to win when, later in the
day I was reading the biography and collected essays of Shmuel Chaim Landau. A little about
Shmuel Chaim Landau from an article written by Yehuda Mirsky. “The founding ideologue (of
the Religious Workers Party and its companion movement of religious kibbutzim), was the
firebrand Shmuel Haim Landau, known by his acronym "Shachal" ("young lion"). Landau, a
descendant of the Kotzker Rebbe, inherited that figure's intensity and drive for authenticity, and
his early death at age 36, in 1928, only added to his legend. He called for "sacred rebellion"
against bourgeois society and religion—coining the term "Torah va­Avodah," which
synthesized the classic Rabbinic cadence of study with the new Zionist teaching of redemption
through productive labor.
Landau’s writings reminded me of one of the greatest struggles of Jewish history, the effort to
create a Jewish State. It was an incredible struggle with ideological and practical challenges to
conquer. People like Landau never allowed desperation to set in ­ they never succumbed to the
death of despair. Had they, their dream of a Jewish State would have died.
We are preparing to enter the period of the "Three weeks", the saddest period of time of the
Jewish calendar.While it is true that we use these weeks to remind ourselves of various
tragedies suffered by the Jewish people, they also serve a constructive purpose ­ the
recognition of a greater future ­ see Maimonides teaches (Laws of Fast Days Chapter5).
Presenting a radical understanding of the fast days of the seventeenth of Tammuz and the ninth
of Av, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson notes that the book of Isaiah (58:5) refers to fast
days as "Yimei Ratzon" ­ days desired by God." He suggests that this verse points to an
additional characteristic of the fast days ­ a positive one. This twist on the understanding of the
fast days in another reminder that these days are not dominated by despair. (This also explains
Zechariah 8:19)

Shmuel Chaim Landau and his fellow Zionists on some level, reversed the "death" of the three
weeks by paving the way for the resurrection of the Jewish national homeland. This idea is
illustrated by the many authorities who teach that the text of the Nachem prayer, that speaks of
Jerusalem as a city that is "laid waste, scorned and desolate", must be altered to reflect the new
reality of a rebuilt and unified Jerusalem.

In many ways our community entered the three weeks of mourning earlier than planned by the
calendar, after all, we did witness the ruin of our synagogue. The official occurrence of these
days with our new understanding of their dual nature, can serve as a reminder of the importance
of not allowing loss and suffering to overtake us.

Real death is tragic and represents a total loss of hope. What should direct our thinking these
days is concept of the Red Heifer as a defeater of death and the realization that the fast days,
even as they are observed in the midst of tragedy, point to a better future.

May we all be blessed with such a future.
Rabbi Barry Gelman

Thu, July 2 2020 10 Tammuz 5780