The Shulchan Arukh tells us that we should be especially careful to avoid any immodest social mixing between men and women during a funeral procession. The Be’er HaGolah indicates that the source is in a Talmudic aggadah which states that the Angel of Death told Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi, “Don’t stand before the women when they are coming back from a funeral, for I dance before them with my sword in my hand, and I have permission to destroy” (SA YD 359, Berakhot 51a).
Rav Kook explains this statement as follows: The somber atmosphere of a funeral affects everybody in a similar way, turning our thoughts away from petty material enjoyment. (This idea is found in Kohelet (7:2): “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of rejoicing, since this is the end of every man and so the living will take it to heart”.) But this result may be achieved in one of two ways:
Some individuals are so addicted to material enjoyments that they view death, which puts an end to these experiences, as the end of existence. For such a person, the thought of death is so bitter that it weakens and disgusts him; he is temporarily unable to enjoy bodily indulgences which he knows are temporary only.
For such a person life and death are total opposites, and as soon as he recovers from the somber atmosphere of mourning this consciousness will simply evaporate, leaving him no wiser than before.
But a more elevated perspective recognizes that death is just one stage in the progression of the soul. “Our minds should conceive of death in a natural way, as one of the wonders of the creation of He Who created from the beginning; G-d Who is good and does good. Therefore, it is chained to the stream of life in its totality; it is one of the circumstances of life and its final apparition.” Equipped with this point of view, when we contemplate death due to the occurrence of mourning, our thoughts turn from earthly pleasures not because of any denial of life but on the contrary because of a strengthened affirmation of life including that part of our existence which continues after our earthly existence is terminated.
Rav Kook teaches that when the boundaries of modesty are not carefully guarded, the former mentality tends to prevail. (One explanation we can give for this is that the romantic connection between man and woman, which leads to the creation of future generations, is one way in which we can partially overcome death in a purely material way. This can partially assuage our earthly worries and turn our attention from the spiritual immortality of the soul.) Thus the angel of death “dances before us”, trying to turn our attention to lighter and more joyful matters. In an atmosphere of levity, this distraction will be successful in preventing mourning from leading to productive introspection.
Furthermore, the Angel of Death asserts that then, “My sword is in my hand”. When we have the appropriate apprehension of mourning, we recognize that only HaShem decides when our earthly lives must end, so that we can begin a new chapter of existence in the World of Truth. But the narrower, more materialistic view experiences death as the end of life; in this case death is viewed as something far removed from HaShem’s providence, as if the sword were in the hands of the Angel of Death alone.
(Slightly adapted from Ein Ayah, Berakhot 51a)
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.