Shabbat Akharei Mot begins in a poignant way, with a reminder of a tragic accident. We read about the death of Nadav and Abihu in parashat Shemini, only a few weeks ago, before Pesakh: young men, their first day on the job after much rigorous training, and something, all unforeseen, went terribly wrong. Akharei Mot, “after the death”, presents its contents in that context: the tragic death of the young, with much to live for, and much yet to do.
Accidents such as this tragedy might shake a modern Western American’s faith. Some say “what kind of G*d would allow such a thing?”. Others simply deny that there can be a G*d in a world where innocents suffer.
It makes this parashah all the more compelling, because after the deaths of the two young men are noted, the text goes on to describe the next stage in the training of the surviving priests. When they died, their father, Aaron, withdrew from his public responsibility and took some private time to mourn. And then the life of the community went on, and Aaron went on with his service to his community as High Priest.
The father of the dead boys did not say “I quit because I have suffered unfairly.” Aaron did not say “I don’t believe in G*d because my sons died accidentally.” And he did not say “I proclaim myself against all organized religion because this is horrible and doesn’t make sense.”
Those three responses to tragedy are understandable when they are made as a cry of pain, but they are not intelligible. In essence, all three are ways of cursing the darkness rather than struggling to light a candle.
This is not to say that a better response would be “G*d knows best” or “there was a reason for this” or, G*d forbid, “G*d chose to take them because G*d loved them so much.” Those responses make G*d out to be an emotional terrorist.
There is a third possible response to unimaginable tragedy. Caught between the utter darkness of a father’s grief and his stance so close to G*d, in all its wholeness and joy, the Torah records that “Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10.3)
There is undeserved suffering in this world. There is much evil as well that we do to each other. But there is also much undeserved joy, and much good that we do to each other. Neither makes sense. There is a mystery at the heart of life that we can approach but will never discern. And in the face of that mystery there is nothing we can say. All we can do is to assert that while we cannot control, or even understand, why bad things happen, we can try to control and understand our responses – and we can choose to reach out to each other, to do what we can when we see suffering and alleviate it. And when all is dark, we can choose not to give in to it, to deny any hope of light or meaning or truth. We can choose to nurture the little light that we can see, if we look carefully, among ourselves.
That is why we gather in organized community and call it religious. It is there that we search together for hope, not certainty. Hope is all the light we have.
This week’s parashah is once again a double: Akharei Mot, “after death” and Kedoshim, “set apart”, which is what “holy” means in Jewish religious culture.
Because every couple of years these two parashot occur as a double (meaning that we read at least a third of them both), it was only natural that our inquisitive and creative Sages who comment upon and interpret every aspect of Torah should comment upon this too: what do we learn from the juxtaposition of these two parshas, and their names? Are we to understand that after death we are holy? what exactly would that mean?
It’s not a stretch for us to accept the idea that the memory of our beloved dead is holy to us, that is, it is set apart in our hearts in a special place, so to speak. We might even set that memory apart to recall only at special times, such as yizkor, the memorial prayers we recite four times a year (at the Festivals and on Yom Kippur).
When we pause to consider the place of death in Jewish tradition, we discover that other aspects of holiness may come into play. For example, we read in the Talmud that after the Roman massacre of Jews at Betar, we were not allowed to bury the bodies – in this final battle of the third failed Jewish revolt against Rome, they were to be a terrible lesson to the rest of us. The Talmud asserts that years later when we were able to bury the bodies, they had – miraculously – not decayed. This idea of a miraculous preservation is later expressed in connection with a belief in what happened (or didn’t) to the dead bodies of tzaddikim, “righteous ones”, such as great Rabbis. These bodies have become different, set apart in our religious tradition, and therefore, in a way, holy.
But does death itself connote holiness? A dead body carries the quality of making all that come into contact with it tamei, “spiritually unready” to stand in G-d’s presence. It causes one to be “set apart” in that way, and such a one must undergo a ritual process in order to become once again tahor, “spiritually ready”, or what we might call normal, as afterward one does return to normal life.
The place of death in our lives is alternately problematic, fearful, tragic, and inevitable – and sometimes even a blessing. All of us will face it. The Jewish question is how does Jewish learning help me face it? Torah study is able to follow us everywhere. The question is whether we let it in.
Aryeh Ben David, writing for eJewishphilanthropy on February 11, 2015, notes that Jewish learning has been conceptualized as having two primary foci. Now, he suggests, it’s time for a third. The first stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “What do I know?” The second stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “Am I connected to what I know?”
The third stage of Jewish learning asks “How can I bring my learning into my life? How does what I know and my personal connection to this knowledge change me? How is Jewish learning making me a better person?”
2,000 years ago, Judaism instituted the reciting of blessings before eating. The goal of saying a blessing is not only to know the words and meaning of the blessing. The goal of saying the blessing is not only to feel connected to the words of the blessing. The goal of the blessing is ultimately to affect me and transform how I eat.
The test of saying a blessing is whether it changes how I actually eat.
Similarly, the goal of learning Torah is not only to know content, and not only to be connected to what I know.
The test of learning Torah is whether it changes how I actually live.
May your learning change your life and all that touches it for good.
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.