Shaya Cohen -


What is Death?

There are all kinds of definitions of death, of course. We have physiological definitions: brain death, heart-death, and others that often are very important as a matter of procedure and law. There is certainly a general consensus that death is the absence of life, however hard it may be to define what life really is. This, of course, ignores the impact that someone may have on others long after they are no longer on the topside of the turf – think of prophets or artists or writers whose deeds or words continue to change the world long after the creators are buried.

As a religious person I am always interested in what the Torah has to tell me about anything – and that includes death. The answer is clear: not much. The Torah promises no heaven or hell, no afterlife at all. People matter because of what they do or say when they are alive, and while clearly Avraham and Moses and many others continue to have an outsized impact on our world, the text does not suggest that they are anything but physically dead, with no reincarnation or resurrection promised or implied.

What the text does say, nevertheless, is intriguing. We are told that mankind is made when G-d breathes the spirit of life into him, and we are also told that this soul is nothing else than G-d’s own spirit (Gen. 6:3). In other words, we each contain a divine spark which we might call our soul.

Mankind is an uneasy tension between body and soul – physical and spiritual, our earthly desires and our divinely-gifted soul. Our choices often can be boiled down to what we do with our body and our soul: do we separate them like an eastern mystic might? Or do we try to combine them – we can, like Mozart, use our creative souls to elevate the physical realm, or we can let our bodies make the call: reduce the soul by subsuming it to the body’s basest desires.

So what happens when we die? The text is, with almost no exceptions, entirely unromantic about death. One of two words are usually used, transliterated as: mais, and gava. They seem interchangeable (though they are surely not; I might explore this another time). Both mean “death” as we understand it today: biological life ends.

But there is one very intriguing verse, and it comes when Rachel dies (Gen. 35:18). She is giving birth to her second son, and the text describes something quite evocative: “And it came to pass, as her soul was departing, for she was dying…”

The text is giving us a few elements here. First of all, the word for “departing” is the same word used for the Exodus from Egypt, for the freeing of a servant, and for Moses’ daily departure from his tent to go visit with G-d. The word implies both freedom and elevation, the opportunity for spiritual growth.

Secondly, the text is making it clear that death is indeed the separation, the freeing of the soul from the body. It is then presumably free to go elsewhere, but based on the “departing” word used elsewhere in the text, the soul is free to travel toward a closer connection with G-d.

The obvious question follows: why, of all the people in the text of the Torah who are described dying (and there are a great many), is Rachel the only person described in this way? Everyone else simply… dies. But Rachel is given this beautiful, even inspiring epitaph: “As her soul was freed.” Why her?

I think the answer is found in the rest of the verse: “…that she called his name Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin.”

Why does this matter? I think the answer is simple: Rachel used her dying breath to do what we are all supposed to do: she was creating. She was using the divinely-gifted power of a soul, of breath, to create in turn. She named her son, and giving a name is a creative act. It is an act, like those of G-d during the creation of the world, that can be done with nothing more or less than a spoken word.

Nobody else in the Torah does this. They might speak their piece (as both Jacob and Moshe did before they died), and then quietly breathe their last. But only Rachel takes that very last opportunity of her life to still create. And it does not even matter that her husband vetoes the name – her creative act remains in the text, for all eternity, a testament to her final choice, her final creation.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter production]

Comments are welcome!

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