In this Parshah, the matter of the death of the righteous appears twice: once in connection with Miriam and a second time in connection with Aaron. At first glance, this subject appears here simply because of the historical succession of events in the wilderness. Our ages, however, offer an additional explanation: “Why is the account of Miriam’s death juxtaposed to the section on the red cow? To inform you that just as the red cow effects atonement, so does the death of the righteous effect atonement.”1

The first question we should ask here is this: What is the significance of the death of a tzaddik?

Second, how is the death of the righteous analogous to the laws of the red cow? After all, the simple understanding is that the red cow is not a korban, and it does not effect atonement but, rather, taharah, whereas in the case of the death of the righteous, the issue is atonement.

Absence of a spiritual essence

Upon every death, and certainly upon the death of a tzaddik, there are mourners and there is loss. When a person who lived with us in this world suddenly leaves it – especially in the case of a great individual whom we needed and depended on – we feel a void, in the simplest sense of the word. In this respect, the death of the righteous is truly the world’s loss.

Still, the Torah often specifically recounts the deaths of many tzaddikim, sometimes briefly and sometimes at great length, so it appears that the death of a tzaddik has special significance, beyond that of a regular person’s death.

Why is the death of the righteous so significant? After all, Miriam is hardly mentioned in the Torah. Why, then, is her death so resonant with meaning for us? Let us also recall that at the time of Miriam’s death, many prominent members of Israel died as well – tribal heads, tribal princes, members of distinguished families – and yet the Torah does not specifically announce the death of any of these other esteemed individuals.

In this context, the Talmud makes a distinction between two types of loss. The first type is the death of someone whose absence, at least in a certain sense, can be measured. It is possible to define certain things that are missing and how much they are missed, and all of them are deficiencies that can basically be filled. The concept of filling that void is called “one who fills the place of his forefathers,”2 which implies that although someone departed from the world, his son can ably replace him. In this regard, there is a famous witticism often ascribed to Charles de Gaulle: “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” This is a type of absence that can be filled naturally.

Granted, there are differences between people and their modes of behavior. It is impossible to fill a person’s absence exactly, even if he is a private individual, and this is true of everyone. Every human being was created in the image and likeness of G‑d, and “man was created single.”3 Hence, even the lowliest person is irreplaceable. Every person has individual significance, an individual and unique personality, of which there is no exact copy; for if there were such a copy, the person need not have been created.

Yet in spite of all this, in a practical sense, the work that most people accomplish in their lifetimes can usually be replicated by their successors.

The second type of loss is the death of a truly irreplaceable person, which creates a deficiency that cannot be filled. The issue of the death of the righteous is partly connected with the fact that a tzaddik cannot be completely replaced by anyone else. One can perhaps do the same things that he did, but for the unique combination of attributes possessed by this personality – there is no substitute. In such a case, even a son who is a worthy successor of his forefathers, both in wisdom and in fear of sin, cannot be an exact replica of them; he is never exactly the same thing.

This is not intended as disrespect toward the younger generation. There are roles in which sons or successors are certainly capable of replacing their predecessors. The fathers carried out a certain function in the world, and the sons continue to fulfill it – and sometimes even exceed it. Therefore, even in the wake of the fathers’ inimitable personal greatness, the feeling of emptiness in the world upon their deaths is not absolute.

However, when a tzaddik leaves the world, the concern is not about a function whose performance is now lacking, but about the absence of a spiritual essence. Not everyone has such a personality, one that is irreplaceable, for which there is no substitute.

Most eulogies, especially one for important people or Torah luminaries, contain the following basic message: We know where to find gold and silver, “but where can wisdom be found? And where is the source of understanding?”4 Our loved one has gone; who will replace him? Who will succeed him?

In truth, however, there are only a few people who are on this level and of this nature. From the distance of generations it can be seen, amidst the full array of people and personalities throughout history, that most great figures were great only for their own time. Often, the loss of an outstanding personality seems inconsolable and irreparable; yet after a while, it becomes apparent that a successor exists. There have been only a few people for whom we indeed have had no replacement. When a person cannot be replaced by another, this is an essential deficiency, and the death of such a person can be treated like the death of the righteous.

When someone is not just a key figure or an important person but a unique phenomenon, the likes of which we will not see again, the date of his death truly carries significance. When someone on such a level dies, this date has significance not only in the lives of individuals but also in the life of a whole community and sometimes even for a whole nation. When the Torah mentions that a certain person died, this can only mean that he was truly a unique personality, incomparable and irreplaceable.

Regarding Miriam and Moses, this clearly seems to be the case, since they did not have children who could replace them in a significant way. Aaron, however, has a son who succeeds him as the High Priest. Indeed, the Torah mentions this in the context of his death. Nevertheless, Elazar can never become another Aaron. It is easy – sometimes too easy, as history has demonstrated – to appoint a High Priest, but it is impossible to make another Aaron; not necessarily because he was the first, but because he was a unique personality.

The tzaddik is not dead

Because of the objective vacuum that is left in the world upon the deaths of such tzaddikim, it is impossible to say with certainty that they are dead.

This notion is stated explicitly regarding Jacob. The Talmud, in Taanit 5b, relates a strange anecdote. R. Yitzchak, upon arriving in Babylonia from the Land of Israel, tells R. Nachman that Jacob our patriarch is not dead. R. Nachman, who was a forceful personality, says to R. Yitzchak, “Was it for naught that he was bewailed and embalmed and buried?!” The Torah not only mentions his death but also describes in detail how he was embalmed and buried, and you say that he is not dead?! Elsewhere, the Talmud describes how R. Bana’a visited Abraham and found him conversing with Sarah, very much alive.5 Other such examples exist as well.

The same applies to all of the “seven shepherds” – the spiritual fathers of the Jewish people. Although it is not said of all of them that they did not die, there is a traditional understanding that all of them have an ongoing existence within the Jewish national community.

Maimonides, in his introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah, for example, does not want to say that Moses died; he refuses to utter this idea. He therefore says that “this was his death for us, since he was lost to us, but life for him, in that he was elevated to Him. As [our sages], peace be upon them, said: ‘Moses our Master did not die; ’6 rather, he ascended and is serving on high.”

All of this signifies that such a person, as it were, cannot die. To say that such a person died is equivalent to affirming that the world lacks a vital component that is integral to its existence. When an ordinary person dies, the world can exist without him. But for a supremely unique individual, to say that he ceases to exist seems almost blasphemous. Hence, we say that this person is dead and not dead; he is dead, but he remains alive in some form.

Life and death – purity and impurity

The death of the righteous has an additional aspect. In various sources,7 the death of the righteous is called a hillula (literally, “celebration”).

Indeed, nowadays the practice in several places – a practice that sometimes far exceeds proper proportions – is to hold a full-fledged celebration on the anniversary of a tzaddik’s death, to the point that at times the celebration is larger than the funeral that was held upon his death itself. This practice relates to a different aspect of the tzaddik’s death – the atonement that it brings.

The Midrash frequently addresses the notion that the death of a tzaddik atones for the generation.8 A simple reading of Isaiah 53 demonstrates this concept as well – that a tzaddik bears the suffering of the generation and atones for its sins in his death.

In order to understand this better, let us talk a little about the tumah that results from death. One of the major principles of the laws of tumah and taharah is that the more dead something is, the more tamei it becomes; and the more alive something is, the less tamei it becomes. This holds true in the great majority of the laws of tumah, and it can be seen in the tumah that results from a seminal emission and in the tumah of the menstruant woman: In both cases, there is a kind of partial death, which, in turn, generates an aspect of tumah.

However, within the whole array of impurities, one of them is exceptional – the tumah of a woman following childbirth. This tumah seemingly has nothing at all to do with the sphere of death; on the contrary, birth is the formative event of life – the opposite of death.

Hence, let us be a little more precise. It appears that tumah is ­created during the transition between life and death – either when life is cut off or when it emerges. To put it very simply, the moment of birth is the moment in which the soul enters the body completely, and the moment of death is the moment in which it leaves the body. If we view our life in this world as a closed unit, a circle, we could say that a line going through it intersects it at two points: at the point of entry and at the point of exit. The events are similar, in that body and soul are in transition, and the connection between them is changing. At these two points, life in this world is intersected.

In this sense, the idea of atonement resembles the idea of tumah. Just as death, whether full death or partial death, leaves tumah in its wake, death similarly generates a point of purity, of atonement, which likewise results from the fissure, the temporary connection, between the worlds. The more alive the person who dies is, the more complete the nature of this purity will be.

We say that the death of the righteous atones, but the truth is that death in general atones, not only for the righteous but for the wicked as well, as it says, “This sin shall not be atoned for you until you die,”9 and “his death is his atonement.”10 The most serious sins are atoned for through death, and the more difficult the death, the greater is the apparent atonement. The atonement attained by someone who is given the death penalty is unlike the atonement attained by someone who dies peacefully in his bed.

Although the sources are not clear on the subject, we have a tradition that any Jew who is killed by non-Jews is called kadosh. Not only when a person dies for the sanctification of G‑d’s name, in which case it is certainly appropriate to speak of kedushah, but even when a Jew is killed by non-Jews because of his crimes and sins, and according to some, even when he is killed by non-Jews in a traffic accident, he is called kadosh. To a certain degree this is also atonement and, as a result, the person ascends to a higher level. In this sense, his death atones not only for his sins but also for his life, because it changes the characterization of his life.

The tzaddik's death atones for the sins of the whole generation and of the whole world, because the greater and more alive the person who is uprooted from the world, the more significant the changes in purity and atonement generated by the transition are. Hence, when the tzaddik leaves the world, the breach in the partition between the worlds makes an impression, in that it changes part of the nature of the world.

Just as in the case of tumah, partial death is also a type of death, so, too, in the case of purity, partial death is an opening to the realm of kedushah, as our sages say that not only do the deaths of tzaddikim atone for our sins, but even their suffering atones.

Why is it that in the Temple we effect atonement with blood and not in some other way? Why does atonement have to be effected by taking a living creature and killing it? Why do we make sacrifices by taking their lives? How can we understand the atonement through the scapegoat, the goat for “Azazel,” which, according to halachah, atones for all sins, both deliberate and inadvertent, and whose atonement exceeds that of the sacrifices? After all, the only thing this act of atonement entails is killing the goat. Would it not be nicer and more sensible to simply set the goat free? Yet we do not do this; instead we kill it, thereby attaining atonement.

We effect atonement with blood because death creates a change in the world’s nature; it creates a reality of atonement and purity. Thus there is a double paradox: On the one hand, childbirth imparts tumah; on the other hand, death effects atonement. Both childbirth and death constitute transitions beyond the bounds of reality, inward and outward. One is a transition into the world, while the other is a transition out of the world.

The two sides of death

When our sages compare the taharah effected through the red cow and the atonement effected through the death of the righteous, this is because they indeed share a common aspect.

Regarding the red cow, King Solomon said, “I said, ‘I will get ­wisdom,’ but it was far from me.”11 This section is full of unfathomable elements, full of paradoxes, like the law that the water renders everyone tamei except someone who is himself tamei, and other conundrums. But the basic conundrum regarding the taharah attained through the red cow is connected precisely with the subject we are dealing with.

One who comes in contact with the severe tumah of a corpse can only achieve taharah and atonement through the death and subsequent burning to ash of an animal. The atonement is produced through something that completely perishes from the world.

If taharahcould be achieved through the usual process – ­immersing in the “living water.”12 of the mikvah, the matter would have been understandable. tumah and the living water can be regarded as opposites: One is death and the other is life. But the fact that the purification from death proceeds through death, through annihilation, is the basic problem in the matter of the red cow, beyond any other detailed halachic questions.

This would explain, in a different way, the atonement that arises from the death of the righteous.

The death of the righteous is indeed a tragedy. When a tzaddik leaves the world, one would expect the world to become much darker. This man enlightened the world, and now darkness has come to the world in his absence. Such a picture of darkness appears in the Talmud’s deptiction of the transition from Moses to Joshua: “Moses’ countenance was like that of the sun; Joshua’s countenance was like that of the moon.”13 Sometimes it also happens that the master’s countenance resembles the sun, but the disciple’s countenance resembles the moon during an eclipse. Sometimes a son is “the father’s leg”,14 15 and sometimes he is even less than his father’s leg.

The death of a tzaddik is indeed a gloomy occurrence but, on the other hand, it is also a moment of release, of rebirth, an illumination of life. When a child is born in this world, he departs from one world and is born to another world. So, too, when a tzaddik dies, he undergoes a reverse process – he departs from this world and returns to the other world. This point creates the paradox in which tumah and atonement coincide.

The transition between worlds can be described by the following anecdote. A man was once very ill, and he dreamed of recovering. He dreamed that in the heavenly court, he was sentenced to return to life, and he was escorted back. On the way, his escorts found a corpse, and they forced him to enter it. He cried and wailed, as he did not want to enter the corpse. After he was forced to enter the corpse, he awoke and discovered that he had returned to life.

This anecdote can also describe the process of birth. Every morning upon arising, one’s soul is taken and forced to enter the body. Thus we recite each morning, “My G‑d, the soul that You gave me is pure.” The soul is uprooted from its own world and thrown into another world.

Why do Moses and Aaron die on the top of mountains? Why does Aaron wear the priestly garments when he goes off to die? The answer is that these tzaddikim do not go down when they die; they go up. At his death, Aaron in effect does exactly what he does upon entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur – he atones for the entire community. Aaron’s death is essentially an act of sacrifice, an act of self-annihilation. Just as when he offers korbanot he wears the High Priest’s garments, so, too, when he ascends to the final korban, he goes up to die in his priestly garments.

Why does Aaron do this, while most others do not? Why doesn’t every High Priest ascend to the top of the mountain? Why don’t all rabbis go up to Mount Nebo?

One of the reasons for this is that Aaron represented a unique personality. He was not merely a tzaddik; he was a perfect tzaddik. For such a person, even his death takes on a unique nature. Hence, every such death must be recounted in the Torah and commemorated. Such a death not only creates a void in the world, but also creates a change in reality.

For this reason, Miriam’s death appears in the Torah as well. It does not matter what role she filled in her life; for all we know or care, she may have stayed at home and knitted. But Miriam represented an irreplaceable personality that departed from the world.

The death of the righteous is marked in reality, engraved in time. Sometimes the event is commemorated only for one generation or only in a certain place. At other times, as in Parashat Chukat, the event is established forever because of its singular nature that will never recur.