One of my rabbis recently flew to the United States to visit a student. While in town, the rabbi was asked to give a Torah class at the office of the student’s father – a very hard-working, rich man who spends untold hours behind a big desk in a fancy office. Towards the end of the class, this busy man took out a bucket from under his big mahogany desk and put it on the table. He asked the rabbi to take a look inside. The bucket was full of dirt! The man turned to the rabbi and explained that whenever he feels good about making a great business deal, he picks up this bucket and says to himself: One day I will be buried with this bucket of dirt covering my body. It can happen any day, and when it does, I will leave all the cash behind.
After relating this story, my rabbi looked at me and commented: “I was shocked! I would never imagine a man in his position doing such a thing. Most people are afraid of death, and try to avoid the subject. This man actually felt happy reminding himself that one day it will all be over” because a reminder of death can actually give one the right mindset for life. The Ben Ish Chai finds this same concept hinted at in our parashah: (ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה (יא:כז – “See that I put before you today…” In other words, perceive and focus on the today that I am giving you. In order to deal with life from a proper perspective, we must stop and ask ourselves: “How would I conduct myself if today were to be my very last day?” This can give us the strength to deal with hardships and overcome them. This can also help us to not waste time on mundane things that are ultimately of very little importance. The Ben Ish Chai’s insight is particularly relevant to those of us who are living a life of plenty. The yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) tries to take advantage of this and entices us to feel very proud of ourselves – to the point of haughtiness. The yetzer ha-ra knows that haughtiness can easily lead to the abandonment of G-d and His commandments. The best way to overcome this is by imagining that there is no more than “today” – that tomorrow is non-existent. By tomorrow, our soul might have left all our worldly possessions behind. As the Midrash puts it, when a baby arrives in this world, his fists are clenched. When he leaves the world, however, his palms are open (Kohelet Rabbah5:2). What this means, symbolically, is that we all come into the world trying to grab whatever we can get our hands on; but when we die, we leave with nothing. The same insight of the Ben Ish Chai can also help us in times of financial hardship. In fact, it dovetails with the teaching of our Sages in the Talmud: “Do not fret over tomorrow’s worries because you do not know what tomorrow will bring. Maybe you will not even have a tomorrow; and by fretting over it, you may be fretting over a world that is not yours” – אל תצר צרת מחר כי לא תדע מה ילד יום שמא למחר איננו ונמצא מצטער על עולם שאינו שלו (Sanhedrin100).Why is it, by the way, that we are inclined to forget that death is inevitable, and that it can happen to any one of us at any moment?The Chofetz Chaim explains that – at least emotionally – most people tend to feel that there is a society of people who die. It is made up of the elderly, the sick, and the unlucky. They belong to this select group who die, of which I am not a member. So while I may be aware of death, it doesn’t apply to me. This mistaken perspective on death spawns a mistaken perspective on life. To counter this, the businessman described above came up with a unique method to internalize death emotionally, on a daily basis, and put life’s worries and challenges in the right perspective.
Learning from the Dead
Another way for us to keep our priorities straight is to consider the meaning of a well-known halachah pertaining to the Jewish cemetery. A man is forbidden to walk in the cemetery with his tzitzit strings outside his pants. This is because – on some level – the people buried there perceive that someone near them is fulfilling a mitzvah that they cannot. This is considered a slight. The Sages call it לועג לרש – mocking the dead. Note that although a few inexpensive tzitzit strings “bother” the dead, they are not in the least bit bothered if a visitor pulls right up to the grave in the latest Infiniti SUV, wearing a Canali suit, a Cartier watch, and talking on his Blackberry. Just thinking of this halachah can help us put things in proper perspective!