What do we do when calamity has struck? Where do we go next? For us as individuals, and for society as a whole, these are not idle questions. The past year has wrought personal, communal, and national tragedy such as many of us have not seen in our lifetimes, such as none of us hope ever to see again. While the pandemic raged, injustices long simmering just below the surface of American life have boiled over again and again; averting our gaze has become untenable, immoral.
Even for those who have been navigating the pandemic with relative ease—people with steady jobs and healthy families, fulfilling work and robust relationships, vaccinations completed or in progress—there is anxiety, foreboding, isolation, burnout. Despite the arrival of lovely spring weather, with more and more people receiving inoculations, the vague sense that this is the middle, not the end, prevails. The cost of the last year is more than we have properly realized. So much has been lost—irreplaceable lives ended in solitary hospital rooms or with a gunshot or under a policeman’s knee.
This week’s Torah reading—the double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim—comes to teach us how to pick up the pieces after disastrous loss. Acharei Mot and Kedoshim are a study in acceptance, devotion, and grit.
Acharei Mot picks up the thread of the heartbreaking story of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died after approaching the Holy Temple to make a sacrifice to God with אֵשׁ זָרָה (strange fire), a fire which was unlike what God had commanded. A sudden fire blazed forth from God—a fire as sudden and stunning as some of the tragedies we have witnessed in the past year—and they were gone. Their father and their community could only look on in horror.
For several chapters following this catastrophe, Aaron falls silent. He becomes a specter, listening impassively as additional laws and precepts are laid out for the community to absorb and obey.
Finally, at the beginning of Acharei Mot, he begins to return to his community, and to his priestly duties.
This parsha sets limits around the Holy of Holies, circumscribing where and when Aaron can enter, how he should dress, what he should bring. It describes the rituals he should perform and establishes the holiday of Yom Kippur.
The first thing Aaron is taught here is not to enter the Holy of Holies at will, because the Divine Presence residing there is too overpowering for regular humans to be in contact with:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אֶל־אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאַל־יָבֹא בְכָל־עֵת אֶל־הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת
אֶל־פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל־הָאָרֹן וְלֹא יָמוּת כִּי בֶּעָנָן אֵרָאֶה עַל־הַכַּפֹּרֶת׃
And God said to Moses: tell your brother Aaron he may not come into the holy place behind the curtain whenever he wants, in front of the cover over the Ark, lest he die—for I will appear in the cloud over the cover (Leviticus 16:2).
It strikes me that these strong boundaries and rituals allow Aaron to begin to recover from the trauma he has experienced. The structures of communal observance enable him to cope with re-entry into a world forever altered by loss and sorrow. Knowing exactly what is expected of him, he can begin rebuilding his life.
For Aaron, having this certitude must be, in its way, comforting. He is, after all, being called upon to return to a site of savage loss. I imagine God, remorseful, saying, “OK, this terrible thing happened. And now you want both to run away and to be close to where you last saw the boys. Here. Come into this holy place, I will meet you there. Not all at once, but in this boxed-in way. Little by little, we will begin to repair what can be repaired. Here is how you should approach Me.”
And from this place of ritual, the parsha builds and builds—law upon law, illuminating the Holiness Code. The mitzvot we received before, in the Book of Exodus, are here contextualized under the topic heading of holiness.
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר
דַּבֵּר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃
And God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the entire community of the Children of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy” (Exodus 20:1-2).
Instruction comes into focus as holy work; the project of being בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים (made in the image of God) involves becoming holy, modeling our behavior on mitzvot so as to attain a portion of holiness. We start with the instruction and move on from there, as Aaron does in the parsha.
There is a passage from the Talmud (Brachot 30a) limning the spiritual life of a people in exile. It is taught that wherever we are—whether traveling, in exile, or in the Temple itself—when it is time to pray, we direct our hearts toward the Holy of Holies.
נִמְצְאוּ כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל מְכַוְּונִין אֶת לִבָּם לְמָקוֹם אֶחָד.
All the people of Israel are found directing their heart toward one place.
Note that while the people are plural, the heart is singular. Directing our varied selves toward one place, with one heart—this is how we find ourselves.
After calamitous loss, it isn’t actually possible to pick up the pieces and make it like it was before. George Floyd’s family will never have him back, but a guilty verdict for the man who killed him is a start, a move toward justice. Likewise, as we emerge from the pandemic, however soon or distant that may be, it won’t be all at once, and we won’t simply resume our old lives, as if we barely skipped a step. Rather, our task is to turn our faces toward the holiest thing we can find, shore ourselves up in boundary and communal ritual and, ultimately, in holiness.
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