Curiously, in Judaism there is no such central figure. The closest we get to that is Moses. Yet, no one knows where Moses was buried (Deuteronomy 34:6) because clearly the Torah did not want Moses burial place to become a shrine. In addition, at Moses’ behest he was replaced by Joshua, who was given the same power as Moses (Numbers 27:18-23 and Joshua 1: 3-5). Reading the book of Joshua, one is struck by how seldom Moses himself (rather than his law) is mentioned. After Moses died, Judaism moved on, without him as a personality.
The notion that one man can lead a group forever, even posthumously, stems from a uniquely human failing. We see it with all dictators. Without democratic institutions greater than themselves to keep them in check, they try and hang onto power forever. Often, they try to outmaneuver death by transferring power to their children.
The idea that no one can fill their shoes is a fault of the human ego. In some extreme cases dictators and religious leaders are able to make their followers believe that they are somehow irreplaceable. By appointing Joshua and then giving him all of Moses’ authority, God made it clear that everyone, even the greatest prophet ever to live, is expendable and must be replaced upon death. Dead leaders, political or religious, continuing to serve posthumously is uniquely foreign to Judaism and Judaic values. Native Judaism does not focus its attention on personalities who lived in the past – instead we look for present-day living examples.
Judaism differs from other religions in another, yet related, way. There is no mention of the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible. Although some Talmudic sages mention the afterlife and it is a legitimate Judaic belief, most Jewish eschatological discussions are related to how it can influence us in the here and now. To me, the message is clear: The Torah wants us to focus on life itself, rather than the afterlife or on those no longer with us.
In fact, death in Judaism is seen as the height of impurity. According to most rabbinic authorities, the cadaver of even the holiest person contains the highest level of impurity (Nachmanides, Chukat, disagrees). In contrast, life is the symbol of blessing and holiness. Whilst we are obligated to respect the body of a dead person we are still reminded that it is the source of impurity.
The most prominent and glaring Biblical example of the value of life and the negativity of focusing on death is found in Deuteronomy where God tells the Israelites, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live” (30:19). The Torah is telling us that we can either focus on life and the here and now, or we can make death – those who have died and our own death – the central part of our focus. We are implored to focus on life and not on death – because it is only by focusing on life and the living that we can truly live.
The reason for this is clear. When we value something we make sure not to waste or damage it. By prizing life and the living, our main concern becomes how to best live life here and now. It also ensures that Judaism remains a living tradition where we look to our peers for advice and guidance, thus, leaving room for each of us to strive for real-life greatness in each generation. In fact, in Judaism we are all encouraged to strive to be as great as even the patriarchs (Tana D’vai Eliyahu Rabbah 25).
Ultimately the relentless focus on life causes us to ask ourselves at any moment: Are we doing the correct thing in order to live life in a way that values life itself? For this the Torah is our guide – it gives us advice from our Creator on how to live life to the fullest. I, for one, am grateful for the guidance.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life