Rabbi David Zauderer
Have you seen our new Web site -- www.casket.com? You can now shop in cyberspace for your own casket -- and it's much cheaper, too.
Have you seen our new Web site -- www.casket.com? You can now shop in cyberspace for your own casket -- and it's much cheaper, too. In a business with "stiff " competition, you will not find a better price on caskets anywhere! And check out their new "layaway" plan. The people at casket.com have "undertaken" the massive effort to provide all those who plan to die in the future with low-income, affordable housing -- and with no less comfort and luxury than your top-of-the-line brand name Tommy Hilfiger casket. So stop "coffin" up all that extra cash for an overpriced casket for your loved one, when you "cadaver" in one of the best coffins that money can buy at casket.com.
You know, it's a shame that the World Wide Web wasn't around when Joseph was buried by the Egyptians over 3,500 years ago. They didn't place Joseph in a casket which they had purchased online. Instead, as we are told in this week’s Torah portion, "He was placed in an 'aron' in Egypt" (Genesis 50:26). The word "aron" is translated as "coffin", but there is a tremendous difference between the two, the significance of which I would like to share with you.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a great Jewish leader and Bible commentator of mid-nineteenth century Germany, points out that the word "aron", meaning an ark or a coffin, is used elsewhere in the Torah only to describe the container holding the Tablets of the Law (i.e. the Torah), and for the collection-boxes for holy purposes (Kings II 12:10).
In all these cases, the aron is not used for burial, but for receiving and safeguarding something for use at a later date. The Tablets were placed in the aron for safekeeping until next needed and the contributions were placed in an aron to be kept there until such time as they would be used in the service of the Temple. Accordingly, explains Rabbi Hirsch, the Torah is making use of the word aron when referring to the casket in which Joseph was placed to teach us that it is no more than a container in which the physical casing of a human being is placed -- temporarily -- until such time that it will once again be needed.
THE DEAD WILL RISE AGAIN
What the Torah is alluding to, in essence, is one of the most perplexing and difficult, albeit fundamental, doctrines and beliefs of the Torah and the Jewish religion -- the belief in the future resurrection of the dead, known in Hebrew as techiyat hameitim. No, you are not reading the script of an old Twilight Zone episode. The idea of a future time when our ancestors will once again come alive and be with us, weird as that seems, has been a part of our faith as Jews for well over 3,000 years.
Way before the Christian faith began preaching the doctrine of the "resurrection", Jews have accepted as part of our great tradition that G-d will ultimately perform the greatest miracle of all time, that of resurrecting the dead. It is mentioned quite explicitly in the Book of Daniel in Chapter 12: "And many of those who sleep in the dusty earth shall awaken.…" It is recorded in the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin 90a among other places. And Maimonides lists the belief in resurrection of the dead as one of the 13 principles of faith that every Jew should believe. And the Men of the Great Assembly, who created the text of the prayer book that has been used by virtually all Jews for the past 2,000 years, incorporated the doctrine of resurrection of the dead into the Shemoneh Esrei, the focal point of the whole prayer service. In the second blessing of this prayer we recite, "And You are trustworthy to resuscitate the dead, Blessed are You, O G-d, resuscitator of the dead".
Now I am well aware that there are those who have edited out of the prayer book any reference to this fundamentally spooky, and very nonscientific, doctrine of resurrection. But it is still mentioned in the Bible and in the Talmud, and has been accepted on faith by many Jews throughout our long 3,000-year history, and, as such, it behooves us to make an attempt at understanding a little bit about this most difficult and "unbelievable" concept.
BODY AND SOUL: PARTNERS FOR (EVERLASTING) LIFE
A basic teaching of our faith is that man is composed of two parts -- body and soul -- and that these two parts are supposed to be utilized together in the service of G-d. The body is the vehicle through which the soul can do its job in this world -- for good or for evil -- hence, it, too, plays a role in earning the reward or punishment. Divine Providence demands that the body, too, receive its just reward: hence resurrection.
A Talmudic parable illustrates this. A blind man and a lame man both desired to raid a certain orchard, but their physical limitations precluded this. The lame man met the blind man and they formed a partnership. The blind man took the lame man upon his back, and the lame man directed him to the orchard. They then shared the fruits of their labors. When they were caught by the owner of the orchard, the lame man protested that he himself could not have plundered the orchard. The blind man defended himself in the same manner. The owner then took the lame man and set him upon the blind man and administered punishment to them together (Tractate Sanhedrin 91b).
Since man is composed of two partners, body and soul, which work together for both good and evil, it is only proper and just that man's body should once again join his soul to be enjoy the fruits of their partnership in this world together as one. So from a traditional Jewish perspective, death and the decomposition of the physical body is just a temporary state of being -- for in the World to Come our bodies will be rejoined with our souls in a more perfected state, in which we will be able to receive the reward (or, G-d forbid, the punishment) for our actions in this world.
But, you ask, how can a rational mind accept such a belief? Great question! I myself don't have the answers for all the questions that are probably going through your minds as you read these lines. The way I approach this age-old doctrine of resurrection is quite simple. I don't quite understand the need for it -- after all, if my soul is happy and blissful in that great big golf course in heaven, then why bother coming back to life with my not-too-flattering body? (Talmudic parable and above explanation notwithstanding.) But I dare not discount this doctrine either even though my own feeble, rational mind can't accept it or understand it. Hey, how many people out there understand how a baby is born and comes to life the first time around? There are simply lots of things that most of us cannot grasp -- like Einstein's theory of relativity, for example -- yet I never heard anyone going around saying that they don't believe in relativity.
I would humbly like to recommend for those of you who are curious to learn more about the concept of techiyat hameitim a wonderful book written by a relatively unknown genius rabbi and scientist of our time -- "Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe" by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, published by K'tav Publishing House. You can pick it up in your local bookstore or online at http://store.yahoo.com/eichlers/881253456.html.
The entire book is fascinating to read (as fascinating as was the man who wrote it; see the introduction), and especially the third chapter titled "On the Resurrection". Rabbi Kaplan attempts to explain the doctrine of resurrection in light of recent scientific discoveries in the field of cloning and genetic engineering. It’s amazing stuff.
Happy reading, and, appropriate to the subject of this article,, I should say, "I hope to see y'all later!"
Rabbi David Zauderer writes from Atlanta.
You are invited to read more Parshat Vayechi articles.
Would you recommend this article to a friend? Let us know by sending an e-mail to email@example.com.