Excerpted with permission from “The Halakhah of the First Day” in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).
[After the burial] the dialectical halakhah [Jewish law], which has masterfully employed both the thesis and the antithesis in her treatment of antinomies, makes an about-face. The halakhah was firmly convinced that man is free and that he is master not only of his deeds but of his emotions as well. The halakhah held the view that man’s mastery of his emotional life is unqualified and that he is capable of changing thought patterns, emotional structures, and experimental motifs within an infinitesimal period of time.
Halakhah and Aninut
Man, the halakhah maintained, does not have to wait patiently for one mood to pass and for another to emerge gradually. He disengages himself, quickly and actively, and in a wink replaces a disjunctive frame of mind with a cathartic-redemptive one. Hence, the halakhah, which showed so much tolerance for the mourner during the stage of aninut, and let him float with the tide of black despair, now–forcefully and with a shift of emphasis–commands him that, with interment, the first phase of grief comes abruptly to a close and a second phase–that of aveilut–begins.
With the commencement of aveilut the halakhah commands the mourner to undertake an heroic task: to start picking up the debris of his own shattered personality and to reestablish himself as man, restoring lost glory, dignity, and uniqueness. Instead of repeating to himself time and again that man has no preeminence over the beast and that all is vanity, he is suddenly told by the halakhah to be mindful of the antithesis: "Thou hast chosen man at the very inception and thou hast recognized him as worthy of standing before Thee."
Yes, the halakhah tells man, death is indeed something ugly and frightening, something grisly and monstrous; yes, death is trailing behind every man, trying to defeat him, his ambitions and aspirations; all that is true. Nevertheless, the halakhah adds, death must not confuse man; the latter must not plunge into total darkness because of death. On the contrary, the halakhah asserts, death gives man the opportunity to display greatness and to act heroically; to build even though he knows that he will not live to enjoy the sight of the magnificent edifice in whose construction he is engaged, to plant even though he does not expect to eat the fruit, to explore, to develop, to enrich–not himself, but coming generations.