We Jews know death. Leaf through the Talmud, that treasure trove of rabbinic wisdom, lore, and law, and you’ll find the grim reaper loafing about on every other page, inspiring scores of intricate debates about what precisely we must do when faced with the Great Unfathomable. Judaism gives us no less than five distinct stages of mourning, as well as careful instructions on avoiding the impurity that comes from being in contact with the dead.
Not to be left disarmed should the occasion arise, we are asked to contemplate many difficult situations. For example, what if you bury someone in a field, say, and then the grave’s precise marker is lost?
Does the question strike you as too strange or esoteric? Make yourself a cup of tea and curl up with the Gemara, the part of the Talmud containing commentaries on the Mishnah, the written account of Judaism’s oral law. Rather than merely prescribe a bunch of “thou shalts” and “shalt nots,” the ancient rabbis who compiled the Talmud left us a rumbling, rambling, and rousing account of their arguments. Often, to better understand the laws, they dreamt up all sorts of hypothetical situations, and then shouted and wrangled their way into something like a resolution.
And what of that lost grave marker? The question is fundamental, not picayune. To wonder what to do when you can’t be sure about a grave’s precise location is to imagine how you should proceed when death’s cold shadow looms large and none of the rituals and practices that bring comfort and closure are available.
What, then, should you do? At first glance, the answer seems almost embarrassingly obvious. Consider the Bible’s stern prohibition on proximity to the deceased. The Book of Numbers instructs us in chapter 19 that those in wanton contact with the dead “shall be unclean for seven days.” Given these strictures, you’d think the rabbis would advocate an abundance of caution. Not sure where the grave is? Steer clear, fellow; the entire field is now potentially impure and must be avoided.
But the rabbis have a surprise up their sleeves. In the Talmud’s Tractate Moed Katan, their counsel is: Don’t sweat it too much. You are to place a marker not too far from where you think the grave is likely to be and then go about your business. Their reasoning for this procedure? “So as not to cause a loss of Eretz Yisrael,” a loss of the Land of Israel.
The Talmud is famous for cloaking profound teaching in dry legalese. You hardly have to be a rabbinic scholar to know that the Land of Israel, that strip of earth promised to Abraham, is sacred. Thus, by warning us against losing even an inch of holy acreage unnecessarily, the rabbis are delivering a timely reminder. Yes, we need to be sure not to run afoul of death’s polluting power. That’s the point of all the rules concerning burial, contact with dead bodies, and mourning. But some things are more important, and they take priority. Put simply: Without risk, there can be no life.
You can try to avoid and prohibit anything even remotely perilous. You can scour each human engagement and strip it of everything that might injure, harm, or offend. But if you do that, the rabbis tell us, you’re literally sacrificing all that is holy within, confining yourself to a world that grows rapidly narrower and bleaker, devoid of all beauty and truth. Only a fool who confuses staying alive with living well would forsake even a small piece of the Promised Land.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. Just look at some of the pandemic countermeasures that seem more symbolic than effective, and you’ll see a society in the grip of the cult of zero risk. We mask and test; we card and censure. We deride as heresy any attempts to ask when enough is enough, or whether strictures laid down “in the abundance of caution” amount to too much precaution.
It’s taken us a minute, but we’re finally waking up to the reality of our situation. When avowed liberal atheists like comedian Bill Maher rail against life in a “masked, paranoid world,” we’ve got to know that something is amiss. Our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters would have us believe that our crisis rests in a conflict between Democrats and Republicans, between science and superstition, or between responsible health policies and reckless ignorance. Not so. We’re up against a more fundamental conflict, a spiritual one the Talmud anticipates. It’s between life—a messy thicket of human experiences that cannot be navigated in a humane way without a modicum of risk, because putting your trust in others, or starting a business, or making love, or raising children is inherently risky—and a condition in which all uncertainties are regulated, all threats eliminated, all interactions monitored and controlled. Choose the latter, and you may still have a beating heart—but your pulse will not quicken. In a risk-eliminated world, you’re not alive in any meaningful sense of the word.
The eighteenth-century Hasidic master known as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov understood this distinction well. “Man,” he taught his disciples, “must walk across a very narrow bridge. And the main thing is this: Have no fear whatsoever.” The wise rabbi understood how paralyzing and dehumanizing fear can be, particularly for people whose lives have been emptied of meaning. He knew that the soul yearns for higher purpose and realized that when life is a string of mundane transactions, a perverse love of what is terrifying can arise. If your daily existence consists of several hours of mind-numbing work followed by binges of online shopping and a torrent of streaming television shows, fear may very well seem a welcome jolt—because at least you’re feeling something.
The key to life, Rabbi Nachman wisely insisted, is found in resisting this urge to let fear be the animating motive. Have no fear whatsoever, he counsels, for in truth life in this world isn’t actually the narrow bridge you imagine it to be. It’s not a slim corridor suspended over rocky waters. It’s not a dangerous passage in which every small mistake can mean injury or death. That which we cross is much more like the field we read about in the Talmud. Yes, there may be some pitfalls and impurities and hazards buried here and there. But the ground remains fertile, verdant, and vast. God created it to be enjoyed, not avoided. Put down your marker where you think danger is likely to be, and get on with the business of living.
These may sound like pleasant musings that belong in synagogue or church but nowhere else. They’re not. Those with specialized knowledge need to debate the merits of masks, vaccines, and mandates with facts and figures and data. But the rest of us should have a conversation about something much larger, which is the proper balance between safety and risk, between security and adventure. We should—of course!—take reasonable precautions to protect ourselves and those around us. But let us not become inflamed by risk-aversion. Zero risk ensures pretty close to zero life. It causes us to sacrifice too much of what makes life worth living. But if we trust in the One who promises, not worrying too much about the perils en route, we can make our way to the Promised Land, where joy and abundance await us all.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.