Jewish learning Speaking of Death at Sinai and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe
Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)
Mr. Rogers, Daniel Tiger, God, and Moses share a problem this week: how do we talk about death with those we love?
In the summer of 1968, Fred Rogers noticed something troubling. In the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Mr. Rogers worried about children becoming traumatized by what they heard from grownups and from what they watched on the evening news. It was increasingly impossible to insulate children from political violence, leaving Mr. Rogers with the question: how might we equip young children with the emotional coping skills to process death?
Millenia earlier, God asked Moses to have a difficult conversation with his family. In the first verses of Parashat Emor,
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא־יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו׃כִּי אִם־לִשְׁאֵרוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו לְאִמּוֹ וּלְאָבִיו וְלִבְנוֹ וּלְבִתּוֹ וּלְאָחִיו׃
God said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother.¹
Moses gives the priest a general rule: while they are permitted to be near the dead bodies of their parents, some siblings, or children, they are not allowed to serve the burial needs of more distant relatives. This guidance becomes more haunting when we remember that Moses is speaking to his own nephews about a rule that will one day prevent them from approaching his own dead body. In other words, Moses is telling his nephews that they will not be permitted to attend his funeral.
Early rabbinic readers of this text wondered: how did Moses deliver this news? What tone of voice did Moses use and what intention did he carry when speaking about his death with his brothers’ children? Leviticus Rabbah, a piece of rabbinic fan fiction on the Book of Leviticus, begins to answer this question by linking our verse in Leviticus to a passage in the Book of Psalms:
יוֹם לְיוֹם יַבִּיעַ אֹמֶר וְלַיְלָה לְּלַיְלָה יְחַוֶּה־דָּעַת׃
Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out² (Psalms 19:3).
The authors of the midrash start their exposition by imagining that the days and nights might not only be talking amongst themselves, day to day and night to night, but rather that days and nights might be talking to each other.³ This communication would allow days and night to discuss giving and borrowing time, as day lengthens and night shortens through the fall and vice versa in the spring. Day and night manage this communication בלי שטר ובלי גזר דין (without contracts and without judicial rulings). In contrast to this celestial cooperation, we humans are litigious to the extreme. The midrash authors suggest that, to borrow and lend even small things, humans require piles of documents and the intervention of lawyers.
At first glance, this conversation between day and night seems to have little to tell us about how Moses spoke with his family about death. However, if we look at the midrash at a slant, it might draw out two approaches to our question of how to discuss mortality. Day and night model a matter-of-fact means of addressing the passing of time which might teach us about how we address the passing of a life. Just as the celestial spheres talk peacefully about the waxing and waning of time, perhaps Moses strived to speak calmly and coolly with his nephews about his own mortality. This approach is in contrast to end-of-life struggles in many families, in which pain and pathos mix with arguments over legacy and inheritance. The message of the midrash, I think, is that we should avoid this conflict-ridden, messy approach in favor of a cooperative and easeful tone in end of life conversations.
While I acknowledge that there’s something to learn from the flow of the natural world, I’m not convinced by the midrash’s vision. Did Moses really speak about his own mortality with the detachment of the sun and moon? Did his nephews really receive this news with equanimity? In turn, are we meant to swallow our big and messy feelings when we discuss end-of-life questions with loved ones, to push aside any feelings of hurt or pain? I am left wondering whether there might be a path between the day and night’s sublime discussions and humans’ painful arguments.
To answer this question, I want to turn back to Mr. Rogers in 1968. In a special episode of his show that aired days after RFK’s assassination, Mr. Rogers’ welcomes us into a conversation between Daniel Tiger and Lady Aberlin in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Daniel asks Lady Aberlin to show him how to blow up and deflate a balloon. After a minute of quietly watching the balloon fill with air and deflate, Daniel asks Lady Aberlin, “What does assassination mean?” Seemingly shocked by the question, Lady Aberlin struggles to explain political violence to young Daniel. She gives a gentle and basic definition, to which Daniel responds, “That’s what happened, that one man killed that other man.” Lady Aberlin tries to distract Daniel with an invitation to a picnic. Daniel declines: “I don’t feel too much like a picnic today.” The scene and conversation end with Lady Aberlin promising Daniel Tiger that she’s available if and when Daniel wants to continue talking about his fears.
In place of the midrash’s extremes of perfect cooperation and broken discord in our conversations about the passing of time, I like to think that Moses might have approached his conversations with his nephews with the imperfect but deeply humane tact of Lady Aberlin. I imagine Moses, like Lady Aberlin, trying to find the right words—misspeaking, perhaps, at times—but arriving at an emotional tone in harmony with his nephews’ traumatized state. Perhaps Moses articulated his fears and needs to his nephews in discussing his morality. In turn, we will certainly stumble our way into and around conversations about death with those we love. However, with vulnerability and courage, we can balance our discomfort and untidy grief with a commitment to kindness and honesty. While we might feel shaken and sad in these conversations and while we might never arrive at Lady Aberlin’s picnic, we can move through discussions of death with all the imperfection and love of being human.
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- Translation by JPS (1985)
- Leviticus Rabbah 26:4
Rabbi Joey Glick is a 2022 alum of Hebrew College and assistant rabbi of Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis. A proud native of Pittsburgh, PA, Joey has studied at Colorado College, Pardes, and the Graduate Theological Union. Before starting at Hebrew College, Joey served Jewish students at Vassar College as a college chaplain. Joey is passionate about interreligious dialogue, old-time fiddle music, and his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.