In the Shadow of Death

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

God's conversation with Moses at the beginning of Ahare Mot is framed by death. Throughout the Torah, God's instructions are spoken to Moses withthe opening phrase, "God spoke to Moses, saying…" God and Moses stand in relationship as Divine Speaker and human receiver and disseminator of God's word to the people. This time however, the conversation is introduced with the words, "God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord." This time, Moses is not merely a listener; he is a mourner. The divine-human encounter is contextualized by loss and tragedy.

american jewish world serviceCommentators attribute numerous reasons to the sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons who entered the Tent of Meeting with "strange fire,"and yet the shock of their deaths is in no way mitigated by any rationale that might be pulled from rabbinic interpretation or imagination. In the face of their deaths, Moses, their uncle, offers a rather specious response, essentially saying, "Look, this is what happens," while Aaron, their father, is silent.

When life is abruptly ended, when death could have been prevented but is not, with what response can the tragic loss of life be met?

Confrontation with Death

This question is magnified and multiplied when the tragic loss of life is on a global scale. What can Torah possibly teach us about responding to the 450, 000 people who have died in Darfur and neighboring Chad since the genocide in the region began in 2003? What can we learn about responding to the over 22 million people who have died from AIDS worldwide and the more than 42 million people who are living with HIV-AIDS today, 74 percent of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa where resources are particularly limited? How will Torah teach us to respond to the 29,000 children who die of preventable diseases every day?

The numbers are dizzying, unfathomable, and yet the dangers of responding with silence, numbness, the rush to move on, or the paralysis of hopelessness and grief are shared in facing tragic loss of all scales.

Ahare Mot begins with the acknowledgement of death. Several chapters and numerous laws separate the tragic scene in the Tent of Meeting from the present parashah. It seems as if, in the wake of Aaron's silence, life simply resumes its usual order.

But Ahare Mot disturbs the flow of laws with the reminder that the work of building a sacred community is now taking place in the shadow of loss. Perhaps the laws that follow the deaths of Nadav and Avihu come because of the deaths, meeting the particular challenges of a community confronted by loss.

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Rabbi Miriam Margles is the Associate Rabbi of Kehillat Lev Shalom--the Woodstock Jewish congregation in Upstate New York. She is co-founder of Encounter Programs, engaging emerging American Jewish leaders in face-to-face encounters with Palestinians in the West Bank.