In the Shadow of Death

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For many of us, it takes concerted effort to even become aware of the tragic and persistent deaths that occur in places geographically and socio-economically distant from our daily realities. It requires an even greater act of deliberate effort forus to internalize the facts of tragic loss as human realities, to allow them to be alive in our consciousness and our hearts. Ahare Mot's narrator ensures that the confrontation with death does not simply recede into the background, but rather that it contextualizes the guidelines for living that follow.

There is Work to be Done

Of particular relevance here is the Torah prohibition that states, "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead." Facing tragedy, with eyes and hearts open, is necessary. Turning a destructive, self-punishing hand against oneself--for continuing to live while others have died, for failing to do what could have prevented death, for feeling guilty or grief-stricken--is forbidden. Confrontation with death must never constitute a negation of life. The living have work to do.

The Source of Life speaks to Moses, explicitly in the wake of the deaths of Aaron's sons, conveying laws through which the Israelites, linked by shared history and ancestry, are to become a holy community.

The living have work to do. The imperative to be holy is fulfilled by protecting the vulnerable and aiding those, like the poor and the stranger, whose lives are circumscribed by lack. It demands looking outside the parameters of one's immediate community and insisting on the inherent preciousness and dignity of all life, protecting it and responding when it is threatened. Kedusha (holiness) is embodied through actions that are neither lofty nor abstract, but rather, that set us in relationship with one another, in responsibility and love.

When either responsibility or love is rent out of proportion with the other, the dangers of overwhelm or grief take hold. We are called upon to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love the living and make their lives central to our concern because we are sensitized to the ache of loss, and because love creates connection, energizing and hope-filled connection, that makes us part of that which is larger than our small selves.

We are called upon to open our hearts to the stranger because we have felt the chilling way in which death makes absolute strangers of even those we are closest with. And so, through the lens of loss, we learn to notice and act on opportunities to dissolve isolation and strangeness between human beings wherever it is possible.

If we can internalize what is at stake, what there is to lose, while making responsibility and love the engines of our actions, the small and specific daily deeds of kedusha are actually able to meet death and tragedy with humility, heroism, and holiness.

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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.