the denial of death

Parshat Va’yigash

We mourn violent and senseless death of men, women and especially innocent children too often nowadays. Too often we listen to the eloquent and soothing words of representatives of the world’s religions with consoling words referencing God’s Will and Better Places.  I think that the Rabbis of the Mishna (Avot Chapter 4, Mishna 23) had it right:

“Rabbi Shimon ben (son of) Elazar said: Do not appease your fellow at the time of his anger, do not console him at the time his dead lies before him, do not ask him [to regret his oath] at the time of his oath, and do not attempt to see him at the time of his downfall.”


For more on the power of silence see my friend Amichai Lau-Lavie’s blog WORD.

The implication of R. Shimon b. Elazar is that later, after the deceased is buried, might be a more appropriate time for consolation, for talk of a Divine Plan and of the deceased sitting out of pain and harm’s way at the side of the angels. After all,  what is the function of religion if not to provide guidance regarding life after death? Or what Brian Leiter calls “existential consolation” and identifies as one of the chief characteristics of religion…in his book Why Tolerate Religion? (see also: Religious Exemptions and the Liberal State: A Christmas Column By STANLEY FISH and In a Crisis, Humanists Seem Absent)

What is striking about the Torah, especially the Five Books of Moses is it’s absolute silence on all things related to the afterlife and the netherworld.

The only word that comes close to the netherworld is Shaol [Strongs H7585] which translates as “grave”, “pit”, or “abode of the dead”.  It first appears in with regard to Jacob in Genesis 37: 35 and 42: 38

“And he [Jacob] said: ‘My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he only is left; if harm befall him by the way in which ye go, then will ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.


Shaol is a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life.  Both the righteous Jacob and the evil followers of Korach end up in the pit of Shaol.

“But if the LORD make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have despised the LORD.’ Numbers 16: 30 (and 33)


In the twenty plus generations covered in Genesis, each death is recorded, but not once is there reference to the deceased going to an afterlife, let alone returning to his or her Maker.  The usual euphemism for death is being gathered unto his people.

“And when Jacob made an end of charging his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered unto his people.” Genesis 49:33

gathered to his people

See also: Gen 25:8 (Abraham), Gen 25:17 (Ishmael), Gen 35:29 (Isaac), Num 20:24/26 (Aaron), Deut 32:50 (Moses) [1]

The biblical silence regarding an afterlife is not an oversight.  It represents a radical theological statement, that no one even a little bit knowledgeable in Egyptian or Babylonian literature or cosmology would miss.  There is no need to dwell on the Egyptian preoccupation on the next world and an after life; the pyramids, tut’s tomb and The Book of the Dead make the point.

The Epic of Gilgamesh provides a powerful benchmark for where the Biblical text is both similar and different from the shared narratives of the Babylonians. Both texts have their flood and even a reference to seven good years of corn, but the way they talk (or don’t talk) about the netherworld… is stark:

Ishtar opened her mouth and said again, ‘My father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction; but if you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.’ Anusa said to great Ishtar, ‘If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks. Have you saved grain enough for the people and grass for the cattle? Ishtar replied. ‘I have saved grain for the people, grass for the cattle; for seven years o£ seedless husks there is grain and there is grass enough.’….

He turned his stare towards me, and he led me away to the palace of Irkalla, the Queen of Darkness, to the house from which none who enters ever returns, down the road from which there is no coming back. ‘There is the house whose people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds“with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away forever; rulers and princes, all those who once wore kingly crowns and ruled the world in the days of old. They who had stood in the place of the gods like Ann and Enlil stood now like servants to fetch baked meats in the house of dust, to carry cooked meat and cold water from the water-skin. In the house of dust which I entered were high priests and acolytes, priests of the incantation and of ecstasy; there were servers of the temple, and there was Etana, that king of Dish whom the eagle carried to heaven in the days of old. I saw also Samuqan, god of cattle, and there was Ereshkigal the Queen of the Underworld; and Befit-Sheri squatted in front of her, she who is recorder of the gods and keeps the book of death.”  (Chapter 3)

The difference between the rich Egyptian and Babylonian cosmology and the Hebrew Shaol-pit, could not be more stark.  By it’s omission of ANY description of the underworld the Hebrew Bible is making a profound statement.  Some might argue that the statement is that there is nothing beyond the life we know.  To argue so much from an omission would be irresponsible.

But given the fact that the Hebrew Bible considered anything to do with death unclean (Tumah) and forbid its priestly class from coming into contact with the dead, let alone making it their franchise (as did the Egyptians), I think that it is clear that the Hebrew Bible having nothing to say about death (literally) is saying that death and the world beyond is not within the realm of discourse of the Hebrew religion and culture.  If one is looking for answers or advice regarding life-after death or why bad things happen to good people look elsewhere.  As the Rabbis would later say with regard to the rewards and punishments at a future time (or afterlife) “the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah” (Avot 4:2) … schar mitzvah

or more succinctly “Choose Life” Deuteronomy 30: 15-19).  At the most, I would attribute a philosophy of The Denial of Death and suggest further reading in the classic book by Ernest Becker of that name.

That being said, I was very touched by the remarks of the Rabbi in Newtown, CT:

Rabbi Praver began to speak softly, he recalled. He told her that though Noah had physically left this world, he was not lost to them because his soul lived on. He asked her if she remembered her 6-year-old self and when she said she did, he told her that “when we become adults, our 5- and 6-year-olds didn’t die with us; they’re contained within a larger vessel.” He was offering, he said, a kind of “spiritual morphine.” (nytimes December 16, 2012)

The only answers regarding the ultimate questions, that satisfy me, are ones, like Rabbi Praver’s, that lie within us..the living… either individually or as a community.  Maybe that’s what the Good Book means when is uses the euphemism: “gathered unto his people”.


The only exception is Rachel, where the word “soul” nefesh actually is mentioned in conjunction with expiring.
“And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing–for she died–that she called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.” Gen. 35:18


Is this a source for a belief in reincarnation (gilgul neshamot) in the biblical text?  I am reminded of the Druze belief that when the spirit leaves one person, it immediately enters another….

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