"And I shall bring upon you a vengeful sword... and I shall
send pestilence in your midst . . . " (Vayikro
Rashi comments on "I shall send pestilence: It is through the
pestilence that you will be delivered into the hands of the
enemies that lay siege upon you, for one is not supposed to
leave a body unburied overnight in Jerusalem, and when they
removed the dead for burial, they were delivered into the
hands of the enemy."
In his work, Nesiv Refoel, HaRav Refoel Wechselbaum
dwells upon a fascinating point. These verses deal with a
period in Jewish history when the Jews sinned and descended
seven levels: They did not study, they did not practice, they
despised others who kept the Torah, they despised Torah
scholars, they prevented others (from observing the
commandments), they denied the commandments and finally they
denied the basic tenets of faith!
And yet, wonder of wonders, these very apostates against
Hashem and the Torah scrupulously observed a mere custom
of not letting a corpse remain in Jerusalem overnight.
How can we begin to understand this strange contradiction?
Furthermore, we must realize that certainly overall the
punishments they suffered came because they had forsaken the
Torah. If so, it is very puzzling that davka a
mitzvah, that of burying the dead within the same day, one of
the few vestiges of all the commandments they had already
abandoned, should be used by Shomayim to bring about their
downfall. Punishment is visited upon a person so that he will
learn to abandon his wicked ways. But what happened here is
the very opposite: it would seem as if they were being
punished for keeping a mitzvah! The effect might be exactly
the opposite of bringing them to improve.
Generally, when things are headed downwards, if a person, or
a nation, were to realize how rapidly they were deteriorating
at headlong speed, and if they were to see how far they had
fallen and how low they truly are, they might possibly arrest
the plunge. But Satan is too clever to let a person see how
far he has gone, how lowly and base he has become.
Rather Satan wants to fool the person (or nation) into
thinking that he is still worthy. To do this, he urges and
encourages him to keep customs and practices that are not
part of the real core of the Torah, that is, they are not
basic, integral features. Sometimes these customs are even
foolish ones without any actual basis or roots in the Torah.
But Satan deceives the person into thinking that they are
even more important, and the rest are just subsidiary.
This approach leads a person to be cavalier about all of the
really important commandments on the one hand, and/or to
sacrifice his very life for those he deems important, even if
they are not fundamental to Torah. Satan gains since that
person sanctimoniously considers himself righteous and
perfect because of the trivial things that he does at great
sacrifice, and therefore does not gauge the situation
properly, nor acknowledge his accelerated descent.
The gemora in Bovo Kamo (82) enumerates a list
of ten customs and practices kept in regard to Jerusalem,
some of which are derived from the Torah and some from
rabbinical sources, which have an evident reason. The very
last one listed is the one of interest to us: "One does not
allow the dead to remain in [Jerusalem] overnight." It is
stated there that this is considered `gemora,' and
Rashi comments that this means that it is a tradition we
have, which has no evident reason or basis!
It is written there in the Mesores Hashas that the
Zohar does bring a reason for this in parshas
Nosso, which is that leaving the dead in the city
overnight draws impurity, and one must be very careful about
doing so in the Holy City.
So we see: on the one hand heresy against the fundamental
tenets, as explained above regarding the seven graded
descents, and on the other hand, ultimate sacrifice for
something that has no grounded basis in the gemora,
but only al pi nistar.
The very evil power which urges a person to sin and pushes
him towards heresy, is the same power which propels him to
envelop himself in "self righteous" acts and to invest the
brunt of his spiritual efforts in matters that are
peripheral. In this way, even a low, contaminated person is
able to regard himself as holy and perfect, as a person of
spiritual stature, one who serves Hashem through great self-
So we see that through this excessive zeal about this
practice, Jews were caught by the enemy and put to death. But
had they let the dead remain overnight in the city and buried
them only the following day, without panic and rush, they
would not have been delivered into the hands of the enemy.
We see, thus, that they subjected themselves, by their own
hands, to a situation of mortal risk, something which is
altogether forbidden according to halochoh. Indeed,
they had no moral obligation to do so; they were not
fulfilling the will of Hashem through this practice. In fact,
it was counter to His will and forbidden.
This is why they were purposely punished through the
performance of an apparent mitzvah. For one thing it was
their extra caution in these matters that caused them to
deteriorate in the real, fundamental aspects of Torah, and
for another, what they believed to be worthy and good in this
case was in reality forbidden and completely counter to the
will of Hashem -- not a mitzvah at all!