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.