FREEDOM FROM FEAR OF DEATH
“Fear of death is the general sickness of man, which comes because of sin. Sin brought death into being, and repentance is the one remedy that will expunge it from the world…In order to obtain guidance in removing the fear of death, we must accustom ourselves to love life according to its true value.” (Lights of Holiness, Part 2, page 381)
In these profound words, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook zts”l teaches us that “fear of death” is a sickness that characterizes the entire human race. Death, which entered the world as a result of the first sin, is the source of this fear. Since the source of the illness lies in sin, the Torah directs us how to be cured of it, namely through repentance. The remedy for the sin of fearing death is the love of life in its true value, a deep understanding of the spiritual value of life, which is not material and quantitative but spiritual and qualitative and as such continues in the World to Come.
By internalizing this message, as HaRav Kook goes on to explain, we can be healed of this sickness: “The terrifying shape of Death fades out and vanishes, and in its place comes the shape of the vision of being, which must be appreciated at its true value. And then death no longer confuses our mind, and again is revealed the understanding of how there is no death here at all in the sense of that depressing and destructive picture of death which lodges in the hearts of the living to oppress them, and we contemplate the day of death and utter a song: ‘HaShem our G-d You are very great, yod?u are clothed in glory and majesty.’” The more we study, the clearer it becomes to us that the notion that death is cessation is erroneous. On the physical level death is a transition to a different world, but on the spiritual level there is continuity, and death leads us to the nearness of G-d: “HaShem my G-d, You are very great.” In his book “The Lights of Repentance” HaRav Kook explains that “As repentance deepens, the fear of death decreases, until it vanishes altogether. In its place comes the state described by the verse ‘She laughs at the last day,’ for a deep repentance can bring a person to this state.”
The encounter with the world in its highest value occurs in a manifest way in the month of Nissan, which in the Torah is called “the head of months” and “the first of the months of the year.” HaRav Kook writes: “The month of Nissan is exalted above all months of the year by being found worthy of the miracles above the laws of nature which will bring about the final redemption … At the present time Nissan does not yet, in truth, have a relation with the other months that would make it countable with them in numerical order. For otherwise it should be called “the first,” so that the second would be related and next to it in degree; but since the way things are directed in Nissan is exalted far above the way things are directed in other months, it cannot be related to the other months but can only be called the head of all of them, for it is exalted above all of them, not the first of them. But in the time to come… then too Nissan will have this superiority because from it began d?the cause that includes and unites all… therefore it is said ‘it is the first to you of the months of the year,’ for the other months will then lean on its elevation” (the first sermon in “Midbar Shor”). Before the complete redemption, Rav Kook explains, Nissan is the “head,” separated from the rest of the months, but in the future it will be the “first” and will influence all the other months. The miraculous conduct of events that prevails in Nissan will be felt throughout the year.
The peak of the encounter with life in its deepest meaning is on the evening when the holiday is sanctified: “And on the night when the holiday is sanctified we are full of redemption, full of the highest freedom, and our freedom liberates our spirit and the spirit of all the universe, reveals the happiness that is hidden deep within us, for the spirit of G-d the life of the worlds lives in us, ‘among you is the Holy One.’ And all life attains its dignity, and our spirit sees its high value and great worth and the loftiness of the desire of its hope which will certainly be fulfilled, ‘trust in G-d forever, for in G-d is the rock of worlds.’ And from the scriptures for the holy convocation, we are standing at the lookout point and seeing the spirit of freedom being increasingly redeemed and arising by degrees from all its entanglements however powerful” (‘Olat R’iyah, Part W, p. 256, “The Passover Haggadah.”)
The inner spiritual freedom that is revealed on the holiday of freedom leads us to encounter “the joy that is hidden deep within us” with “the spirit of G-d, the life of the worlds” and from this “all life attains its dignity and our spirit sees d?its high value,” and this vision frees us from “the general sickness of man,” which is the fear of death.
Matzah is called “the bread of healing” (nahama deasvuta). HaRav Kook explains: “Matzah is the bread of healing, the healing of the liberated soul, the highest freedom, in complete redemption.” (Lights of Holiness, Part 3, p. 36) In the month of Nissan and especially on the feast of unleavened bread, a power of renewal comes to the world. The eating of matzah gives the people Israel the ability to receive special powers at this special time, and on the other hand the eating of chametz (leaven), which is puffed up and materialistic, deprives man of the ability to receive the powers of renewal that come to the world, and thus the Torah punish whoever eats chametz on Pesach with the severe punishment of karet, being cut off: “Chametz releases a very specific and characteristic power which negates complete freedom, and whoever eats chametz at this period of renewal for his soul and the soul of the Jewish people, removes his own life from the world, and that soul shall surely be cut off.”
This month death “paid us a call” with the immolation of eight holy students of the “Mercaz HaRav” yeshiva, the yeshiva founded by our teacher, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing. The horrifying encounter with death shook the foundations of the houses of Israel. On the other hand – we were privileged to encounter the stories of the lives of these holy ones, hy”d, who sanctified the Name not only in their deaths but in their lives – lives of faith, Torah and prayer, lives of true value, hold?y and elevated lives.
Let us pray to the Holy One, blessed be He, that the month of Nissan may come to us for good and be a month of redemption, of going forth from all straits to complete freedom.
Rabbi Bnayahu Bruner