One of the most difficult experiences that a person must undergo is the pain of the death of a loved one. Without guidance, one finds it very hard to find the correct approach to death. On one extreme, some people tend to try to escape the unpleasant feelings associated with death. One baal teshuva remembered the tragic death of a friend in his teens, and how his friends didn't know how to react. What did they do? They went out and got drunk as a way of escaping the unpleasantness of the situation. On occasion these feelings of the need to escape are even expressed at a shiva, where the visitors speak about mundane matters instead of talking about the deceased. On the other extreme, some people do not know how to recover from the pain of losing a loved one. They mourn excessively to the point where their lives are permanently harmed in some way.
In order to understand the Torah approach to death it is instructive to analyze some of the mitzvos that relate to mourning. The Torah prohibits certain acts of mourning: In parshas Kedoshim, it writes "You should not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you; I am Hashem." In parshas Re'eh it tells us, "You are children of G-d, do not cut yourselves, nor tear out hair between your eyes over a death." These mitzvos teach that it is wrong to make a cut in one's body as a sign of mourning. In contrast, there is a positive commandemnt to tear one's clothing on the occasion of the death of a close relative (this is known as kriah). The Shulchan Aruch states, "Someone whose relative has died, (if it is a relative that one is required to mourn over), must tear [their garment] for them." It is striking how very similar actions of tearing are regarded so differently in Jewish law, to the extent that cutting one's flesh is forbidden and yet, tearing one's clothing is obligatory?
In order to understand the difference between cutting one's body and cutting one's clothing, it is necessary to analyze the first event in the Torah in which clothing plays a role - that of the chet (sin) of Adam Harishon The Torah tells us that before the chet, Adam and Chava did not wear any clothes, yet they felt no shame. However, after they ate from the fruit, they then realized that they were naked and they wore clothes to cover their shame. What change took place as a result of the sin? We know that man is comprised of two, contrasting features; a body and a soul. It seems that it was always understood that it was inappropriate for one's essence to be exposed, and therefore there was the necessity of some kind of 'covering' or clothing. Before the sin, Adam primarily identified himself as a soul, and his body took on the role of a kind of 'clothing' for the soul. Accordingly, there was no need for garments to act as clothing for the body, because the body was a kind of clothing in and of itself. However, after the sin, man's primary identity shifted to being that of a body. Once he viewed his body as being the ikar, he felt embarrassed when it was uncovered. Accordingly he needed clothing to cover himself.
With this insight into the relationship between body and soul, we can now gain a deeper understanding of the significance of tearing one's clothing or cutting one's body. Since the chet of Adam Harishon, man lives his life primarily focusing on himself as a body. Thus, when a person dies, one could mistakenly think that his whole being is gone forever. However, this is a grave mistake - he has only lost his body, but his soul remains extant. Accordingly, we tear our clothing to remind us in our time of grief, that our loved one's essence has not disappeared. Only his body, which was the clothing for his soul, has been lost, however his soul is intact. This explains why it is forbidden to make a cut in one's flesh. To do so indicates a belief that this person ceases to exist in all forms.
Through the Torah's directions of how to react to death, we learn the correct attitude towards such a significant event. The mitzvo of kriah teaches us that it is appropriate and proper to express feelings of loss at the death of a loved one. Escaping is an unhelpful and even damaging way to react to any painful event. We acknowledge the pain of losing someone close to us, and also share in an pain that they may experience as they leave their body. However, we do not view death as the end of a person's existence. We recognize that our loved one has moved on to a higher plain of existence. Making cuts in one's body symbolizes a belief that the deceased ceases to exist in any form. Accordingly, it is a totally inappropriate action.
May we all merit to understand the Torah approach to life and death.