The Living Have Work to Do

Seeking meaning in the sudden deaths of Aaron's sons.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot, Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30

God’s conversation with Moses at the beginning of Achrei Mot is framed by death. Throughout the Torah, God’s instructions are spoken to Moses with the 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.

Commentators suggest numerous reasons for 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 more than 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.

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

But Achrei 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.

For many of us, it takes concerted effort even to 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 for us 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.

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


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