By Rabbi Matt Schneeweiss
“Hashem’s children,” “a holy nation,” “chosen by Hashem,” “most treasured of peoples.” When you encounter such phrases, which of the 613 mitzvot do you associate them with? Let’s say it at the same time on the count of three. Ready? One, two, three:
Not tearing out one’s hair or lacerating one’s flesh in grief like idolaters!
Oh, that’s not what you were thinking? Well, that’s what this week’s parsha says:
“You are children to Hashem, your God. Do not lacerate yourselves and do not make a bald spot between your eyes for a dead person. For you are a holy nation to Hashem, your God, and Hashem has chosen you for Himself to be a treasured people, from among all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2).
Self-harm, in general, is forbidden by Jewish law, but the Biblical prohibition in our verse pertains specifically to self-harm as an act of mourning, a ubiquitous practice in the idolatrous cultures of ancient times.
What is the connection between this obscure prohibition and these beautiful characterizations of our relationship with Hashem? What does this teach us about our identity as a nation?
The commentators offer a variety of explanations.
Ramban cites our verse as the Scriptural support for the Rabbinic injunction against excessive mourning, and Rambam expands upon this theme: “A person shouldn’t be unduly aggrieved over his deceased [relative] … for [death] is the way of the world, and a person who causes himself anguish over the way of the world is a fool” (Laws of Mourning 13:11).
The key word here is “unduly.” Ramban emphasizes that “it is natural to cry over the departure of loved ones.” To not mourn would be inhuman, as Rambam codifies: “Any person who does not mourn as the Sages commanded is cruel.” Jewish law provides a framework to promote healthy grieving and to facilitate the transition to life after the loss.
But self-mutilation crosses that line. According to Sforno (on Vayikra 19:2), to be holy means to be guided by our God-given intellect in all our ways. In mourning, this means allowing ourselves to feel pain without being consumed by it, to recognize the loss without distorting our view of reality, and to maintain our humanity without undermining our character as “a wise and understanding nation” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
Rabbi Matt Schneeweiss is a rebbi and administrator at Yeshiva Bnei Torah in Far Rockaway, New York. Check out his Torah content on YouTube, kolhaseridim.blogspot.com, and his podcasts “The Stoic Jew Podcast,” “Machshavah Lab,” and more.