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Parashat Chukat: Envisioning the Perfect Death

What is a perfect death?

That’s the question this week’s parasha, Chukat, invites me to ask and I invite you to question yourselves as well.

This week in the parasha we part both from Miriam and from Aaron. The Torah describes each of their deaths a little bit differently. Miriam leaves us and we are not told exactly how that happens.

With Aaron, we have this amazing description. Moshe and Aaron and Eleazar walk up the mountain. Aaron takes off his clothes. Elazar receives his garments and Moshe and Eleazar come down the mountain.

Did you ever wonder for a moment what happened as they were walking up the mountain? What was the conversation between the brothers? What was the conversation between the father and son? And then how did Moshe descend from the mountain with his nephew?

What happened in those moments, in those conversations? What would a perfect death look like?

Roshi Joan Halifax, an anthropologist and also head of a monastery in New Mexico, asked three questions in her book, “Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death.” And she asked readers to take three minutes to respond to each one of the questions.

“What, in your imagination, would be the worst death in the world? What would be the best death in the world?” And then she asked, “How are you living your life, how are we living our lives, to bring us one step closer to that perfect death?”

The Talmud gives us multiple descriptions of what a perfect death can look like. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai on his deathbed, Rebbe on his deathbed and Rabbi Elazar on his deathbed.  And the Talmud also tells us that seven merited to die the death of a kiss. Aaron, Moshe, Miriam: the three of them merited to die the death of a kiss.

I also want to offer the other question that I’m sitting with and that is the gift of the way this parasha opens. It begins with the story of the Red Heifer and how we purify ourselves when we come in contact with death.

I truly believe the great teachers, they leave us with the first questions we need to answer and ask once they’re not here. And the Torah, before parting from Miriam, before parting from Aaron, the Torah tells us how we can purify ourselves from this moment of impurity.

It is possible to come in touch with death and then be able to enter into the world again and re-embrace life. And before we encounter the death, we’re given the gift of what we do when that moment happens.

I want to ask you two questions. I want to ask you to enter your imagination for a moment. One is the homework that Roshi Joan Halifax is leaving each one of us with. God forbid, only three minutes, describe the worst possible death. And, God willing, in good health, I still say a little bit God forbid, take three minutes to envision the best possible death.

And then three minutes – only nine minutes of homework – three minutes to consider how you are living your life to bring you closer to that perfect death?

The Talmud says that seven died the death of a kiss. Imagine to yourself what that would be like, that your last exhale is inhaled by the Divine. God inhales our last exhale and that is the death of a kiss.

I pray that we live to 120 in good health and yet at the same time that we have the courage and the ability to ask ourselves these hard questions that will then enrich our life to walk forward in great blessings.

Shabbat Shalom from Schechter.

Reb Mimi serves as the Mashpiah Ruchanit (spiritual mentor) of the Rabbinical School, and  teaches Talmud and Hassidic Thought. She will guide and walk with the rabbinical students on their personal-spiritual journeys. She served as the Mashpiah Ruchanit of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles for the last 16 years. Prior to this Reb Mimi was one of the founding administration and faculty members of the “Yakar” Beit Midrash and community.

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