Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: Light the Way Forward

Our parashah begins with these words:
 
דַּבֵּר, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, וְאָמַרְתָּ, אֵלָיו:  בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ, אֶת-הַנֵּרֹת, אֶל-מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת.
“Speak to Aaron, tell him: in your lifting up of the lamps, it is toward the front of the menorah [lamp stand] that the seven lights should illuminate.” (Num.8.2)
This is difficult to understand without visualizing the menorah. It is a large, seven-branched lamp stand, and at the top are not seven candles, but seven oil lamps. They look like a simple example of the famous Aladdin’s lamp; they are designed to hold oil, poured in the larger end’s hole, which feeds the wick protruding from the hole at its smaller end.
These small oil burning lamps are ubiquitous in archaeological digs in Israel. They are about the size of your hand, and constitute the equivalent of a torch in a land without so much wood to burn.
Aaron is told to situate the lamps in the menorah in such a way that they give light at the front of the menorah. While this is a reasonable safety measure against setting the Tent of Meeting in which the menorah stood on fire, the seven-branched lamp stand and the direction of its light also invites us to consider a deeper, more symbolic level of meaning.
What does it mean to say that when you lift up a light, it should burn forward?
It is taught that the menorah might symbolize the Jewish people: seven branches, multiple paths in Jewish life. Yet the menorah is fashioned of a single piece of precious metal, demonstrating that the different paths we take need not detract from seeing our community as fundamentally united. Diversity need not lead to division. Rather, differing individual talents can be brought into a synthesis stronger for its various nuances.
Similarly, the menorah can symbolize our society: especially as we enter Pride Week it is appropriate to note the many colors of the Rainbow Flag and the beauty of diversity it evokes. Different paths need not detract from the essential light shed by the human menorah we can become together.
But it’s the light, not the seven branches, that most compels this week – a week in which we experienced the darkness shed by those who rally for racism and lift up the flag of hatred. And so Torah comes on this Shabbat to remind us that we have light to shed, illumination to direct forward. It is not enough for us to share our light among ourselves – Jewish tradition commands us to direct it forward. Onward, despite the demoralization and confusion sown by fear; upward, as our former First Lady taught: “when they go low, we go high.”
The menorah demonstrates that each of us need not agree with each other on what act is the right one for this day and this time; there are many ways forward, and we must understand that to which we are best suited, so that the light we each bring will shine as brightly as it can.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat HaGadol Akharei Mot: Death in Spring

Here on the cusp of the new agricultural year, in the full blown glory of spring, we think of new life and renewal. Our spring holy day festival, Pesakh, is first of all a time to celebrate the new wheat, the baby lambs, and of course the return of grasses and flowers with the lengthening day.

It’s all the more shocking when death occurs at such a time, when we’re so focused on new life and all the future planning that goes with it. But this week’s parashah is about death, and its aftermath. Akharei Mot, “after the death”, refers to the unexpected sudden death of Nadav and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron who were killed accidentally during their first day on the job as priests in the newly-erected Mishkan, the holy space the Israelites created for the purpose of seeking G-d’s presence.

In truth, though, death is always unexpected, in a way, and always shocking. And in our surprise, we are frozen out of our normal activities, and, often, at a loss. Is this what happened to Aaron? He and four sons were all newly invested as priests, serving the Israelites by taking care of the sacrifices they brought. It was their job to keep the place clean and functional, to offer the sacrifices correctly and to keep the fire burning upon the altar. Through no fault of their own except perhaps for ignorance, two of them are now dead. There is no way to know why they are dead.

There is a prescribed response for when we hear about a death. We are to say barukh Dayan haEmet, “blessed is the True Judgment”. This is a statement of acceptance – that even as we accept life and love, we must accept death and loss. It is a statement of resignation, and, perhaps, of assent: I was happy to have to one, even at the cost of the other. Who among us would refuse to love, simply because life will end?

The High Priest, Aaron, brother of Moshe, has two things to teach us about death in his reaction to the death of his sons, both in the parashah in which they are killed, Shemini, and the parashat hashavua for this week, Akharei Mot.

The first is that after his sons were suddenly killed, we read vayidom Aharon, “And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10.3). He did not have it within him to immediately say “I accept this”. There are times when we cannot utter the words right away, because we cannot yet feel them to be true. Aaron reacts honestly, as a father. He is not rebellious, he is just not there yet. This kind of loss will take time to absorb; in such a moment of shock the heart is numb. For him, in this moment, there is no sense of G-d’s presence to acknowledge.

The second lesson Aaron teaches in these moments is that his own personal loss of connection to G-d is his own business, and that he still has a job to do, and an important responsibility to the community. The disaster has happened while he is in the course of the ritual of blessing the Israelite community in G-d’s name. No matter his personal sadness, he must function for the sake of the people – and he does not let them down. He continues and concludes the sacred rituals, and only then does he take time for himself to grieve.

In our private extremities of experience, we may feel ourselves radically alone. Yet, just like Aaron, we are surrounded by, and part of, our community. Even when we are without words, we still belong to it, and it to us. Sometimes there are no words, and no sense of G-d, in the face of death – but there is still love, that gift of G-d that comes to us through the people whose lives we share, and which lifts us up out of darkness toward the light and renewal of spring.