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'You are G-d's children. Do not mutilate yourselves and do not make a bald patch in the middle of your head as a sign of mourning'
is immediately followed with:
'For you are a holy people to the Lord your G-d. G-d has chosen you from all nations on the face of the Earth to be His own special nation' (14:1-2).
Rashi makes the connection between the two verses. You are My children, says G-d. With that status, you should take pride in your appearance even when grieving the death of close relatives. In addition, he continues, self-mutilation was forbidden as it was a mourning practice of the idolatrous Canaanites.
The Sforno explains that Torah does not permit such excessive mourning for the reason that Israel is a holy nation. The self-mutilation mentioned here has two causes. One is the deep concern for the soul of the person that died. The other is the profound sense of loss felt by the mourners.
The Torah urges moderation in mourning: "For you are a holy people". Every Israelite including the person that just died has a share in the World to Come, where "one hour of spiritual happiness is better than all the joy this world has to offer" (Avot 4:22). The soul, which is the essence of the dead person, is on the way to that ultimate fulfilment. That should be a source of comfort. All the more so, as the Israelites are "His own special nation". Though all nations are important to G-d, the Israelites are the special treasure to G-d within humanity (c.f. Ex. 19.5).
"You are G-d's children" are also words of support to the mourners. G-d, our Eternal Father, is still with us even in the hard times of the death of a loved one.
Implied in the Sforno's explanation is that death is not a full stop, but a comma. All people survive death in spiritual form (c.f. Eccl. 12:7). The essence of the person is immortal. Thus a period of mourning is appropriate. But life continues. Even with Moses, that period of mourning was 30 days only (34:8).
In addition, this prohibition reflects a fundamental Torah attitude towards living. Those who disfigure themselves permanently are giving a message to the rest of society. The message is that they are living in the past. Life was better before, and can never be the same again.
This contrasts with the Torah attitude, expressed by Moses: "Choose life, so that you and your children may live" (30:19). Every day presents a different challenge. A range of opportunities once missed may never come again. They should not be obscured by idle and self-indulgent nostalgia. As Kohelet puts it: "Do not say that times long ago are better than today. Putting that idea forward is not wise" (Eccl. 7:10).
Thus Torah attitude to mourning is expressed with: "For you are a holy people to the Lord your G-d". Mourners have to come to terms with death in that framework. The current shiva practices need to be within that spirit. These include reviewing the positive events and lessons from the deceased's life, and emulating them in future generations. It would certainly include the well-established practices of learning mishnayot dedicated to the soul of the deceased. And where possible, to contribute and enrich the ongoing life of the community with projects in the name of deceased.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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