In Parshat Chukat, the Torah relates the story of Miriam’s death. Rashi raises the question of why Miriam’s death is recorded next to the description of the system of Parah Adumah, the process of purification from contact with a corpse. He answers that just Parah Adumah and similar Avodot and Korbanot atone for man’s sins, so too, the death of a Tzadik atones for people’s sins.
This Rashi seems quite strange. How can one person’s death atone for another’s sins? This whole idea seems to resemble the belief of the Notzrim, who say that the death of one man atoned for all humans’ sins. What is the idea here?
In order to answer our question, we must first understand another question: what is atonement? Perhaps atonement is when a person is comfortable with the fact that he is human and makes mistakes. The reason why Korbanot atone for a sinner is because if he merely performed plain Teshuvah, he might never feel closure on the issue. But the final step of Teshuvah, a Korban, produces Kapparah and enables the person to move forward and progress, rather than constantly dwelling on his past Aveirot. Similarly, the concept of Mitat Tzadikim is that when a Tzadik, a most perfected and righteous person, passes away, it comforts man to think that even such a great person is a human being and that he too is subject to death. This causes the sinner to feel a certain comfort with his own imperfections and humanity, reaching a higher level of Kapparah.