Here, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and terrifying day of HaShem. (Malakhi 3.23)
This Shabbat, on which we read parashat Metzora, is called the Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat, because this year it is the last Shabbat before Pesakh. There are several possible reasons why it got the moniker. One is that Jews spent more time than usual in the shul getting a refresher on all things Pesakh, especially the Haggadah and the halakha for cleaning the house. (It’s ironically appropriate that this week’s parashat hashavua mentions diseases that visit houses in this context. Hmmm – is a house full of clutter more likely to develop a disease?)
The Shabbat is called HaGadol also because of a striking feature of the special haftarah for this Shabbat, from the Book Malakhi 3.4-24. The passage calls upon a day on which all the world will be just, and fair.
“Behold, the day is coming – it will burn like a furnace – and all the arrogant, and all who do evil, will be like the worthless stubble left after the harvest. The day that is coming will set them ablaze and they will be left with neither root nor branch. But for you who have done well, and feared evil, for you a sun of righteousness will arise with healing in its wings, and you will come forth and dance like happy calves in the meadow.” (Malakhi 3.19-20)
All the centuries of commentators and all the interpreters of texts have been drawn to this apocalyptic vision, in which the wicked finally are punished and those who do good are rewarded, because they knew as well as we that such has never really been the case, at least not in any consistent, objective way.
It’s a real problem. There are many who deny any foundational meaning to their lives because of the reality of injustice – of evil done by powerful people and innocent suffering. It offends us all. But becoming a cynic in response is the most self-defeating of acts, because then no one moves to defeat the evil that does exist. And then it wins. And the opposite – believing in the vision, and taking a vindictive pleasure in the idea that soon, they will get theirs – is one of the more dangerous impulses informing this electoral cycle.
So what is the point of this haftarah, and why do we hear it chanted on this Shabbat before Pesakh? Most likely it has to do with the mention of Elijah the Prophet, who will come to us at the End of Days to proclaim that finally, everything will be all right. We put out a cup of wine for him, a cup that symbolizes all the unanswered questions of halakhah, and in that way, of all the questions that keep us awake at night, and can’t be answered.
Some day, Elijah will tell us this (or we’ll figure it out for ourselves and therefore summon him): there is only one answer for those who ask why life isn’t fair, and why the innocent suffer, and why some take refuge in lies which are promises that can’t be kept. And that is to change your perspective. The interpreters and commentators of our tradition teach that those who run after power, and do evil with it, don’t even know what they are missing: the Shekhinah, the Presence of G*d, that one can only sense in g’milut hasadim, the practice of loving kindness.
It will be all right, if we put our faith in the meaning of being kind, no matter how many people are mean. They will never know that what they really want is right here, in the next mitzvah you do, as long as you do it lovingly, kindly, with delight. That message is what is so great about this Shabbat.
This is the last Shabbat before we leave. Grab what you think you can take with you, we have no idea, really, what we’ll be facing, only that we’re leaving.
בכל דור ודור חייב אד לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים . In every generation, each person is obligated to see himself as if he went out of Egypt. (Mishnah Pesakhim 10:5)
This mitzvah, this obligation, is at the heart of our celebration of Pesakh, the Festival of Matzah. And on this last Shabbat before Pesakh we are to prepare, and to help each other to prepare. But here’s the paradox: the moment itself, should we reach it (may we reach it in peace!), will be something we cannot be prepared for.
How shall we be prepared for that which we cannot prepare for? The regular parashah this week, parashat Tzav, holds a clue to the answer. Among the directions for maintaining the newly established sacrificial system we find the following:
אֵשׁ, תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–לֹא תִכְבֶּה.
Fire shall be kept alight upon the altar continually; it shall not go out. (Lev. 6.6)
We find that the Jerusalem Talmud comments, “continually—even on Shabbat; continually—even in a state of spiritual unreadiness.” (PT Yoma 4.6)
In a very real way, this is still our daily work: to keep the fire burning. The mystics teach that every aspect of the physical Sanctuary has its counterpart in the inward Sanctuary, within the soul of the Jew. Your heart, they teach, is that altar. Our most important task is to keep the fire – of passion, of love, of joy – burning.
How do you prepare for the unknown that Pesakh commands us to face? by keeping your inner fire bright. That which you do to take care of that inner fire – even on Shabbat, even when you are distracted, bored, not “spiritually ready” – that will keep you prepared, even for that which you cannot imagine in your future.
In this context we note that the name here for the continually burning fire is eysh tamid, from which we get the ner tamid, that light in every Jewish sanctuary which is misunderstood as the Eternal Light. The only thing eternal about it is the regular daily dedication of those who were tasked with keeping it going, regularly, all the time! Once that was the priests on behalf of us all, but since the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, we act according to the Torah’s teaching that “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19.6). We are all priests now, and that fire’s regular light depends upon all of us to keep it going, not only for ourselves but for each other.
The Talmud records the teaching: “the one who has enough to eat today and worries about tomorrow has no faith.” (BT Eruvin 54a) This is not meant to encourage you against future planning – only to understand that essentially we cannot control tomorrow, but we can act upon today. Especially upon ourselves. Worry about yourself today, the Sages suggest, and you need not fear tomorrow. Keep that fire going for today. One day at a time. Right now.
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.