As we wrestle to live through the plague of covid-19 and “count up” the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot, I find both comfort and challenge in the name of the double portion of Torah assigned to us to study this week: Achrei Mot Kedoshim. If read together as a phrase, the name of our double parsha translates to me as a Divine call to us: “After death be holy!”
Today, we are living through massive loss of life in a state of quarantine which leaves mourners with the inadequacy of virtual funerals and virtual shiva. Frustrated by our inability to hold our family members and friends, what kind of “kedoshim” of holiness or sanctity can we find after the death of so many from an invisible deadly plague?
In the opening of this week’s Torah reading, Leviticus 16, the Torah picks up the narrative of Leviticus 10, which was interrupted by five chapters of details concerning ritual law. In Leviticus 10, the Torah tells us:
“Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before God alien fire, which He, (God), had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; they died at the instance of God. …. And Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:1-3).
This first mention of the death of Aaron’s sons leaves me troubled. Moses, to me, sounds more like a comforter of Job than the “Moshe Rabbeinu” our tradition holds dear. Did Nadav and Abihu actually commit a transgression for which the death penalty was required? Can there be any real comfort in explaining the unexplainable as God’s will? Is Aaron’s silence not the most human of responses to unexplainable tragedy?
Achrei Mot begins with a very different response.
“God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the Presence of God. God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover” (Leviticus 16:1-2).
By simply noting that Aaron and his remaining sons continue performing their ritual responsibilities (most particularly the ritual of atonement proscribed for Yom Kippur) after the death of Nadav and Abihu, this week’s Torah reading instructs Aaron to respond to his sons’ deaths by continuing to perform God’s service. As I read the details of the Yom Kippur rituals, described for us in chapters 16 and 17, this year I find a new understanding of the nameless character called the “Ish Iti”, the designated individual who leads the scapegoat carrying the sins of Israel into the wilderness. I believe that the thousands of health care workers who are not only doing their job of seeking to heal so many from this mysterious disease, have also willingly, though reluctantly, risen to the task of comforting the dying who they have no way of saving. They are the self designated individuals who, similar to the Ish Iti of the Yom Kippur narrative, are saying Hineni, “I am here!” to both God and their fellow human beings.
As I seek meaning for the death of so many Nadav and Abihu-like souls in our contemporary world from covid-19, I cannot accept Aaron’s silence as a sufficient response. Perhaps the Torah’s interruption of the Nadav–Abihu narrative with five chapters of ritual laws, many of which deal with the mystery of disease, can help us as we wrestle with the pandemic of the plague we call covid-19 and the massive loss of life.
One message I hear in the double portion of Tazria–Metzorah we read last week is that we must both protect the community from a contagious disease and care for the sick and leave no one behind. During the Biblical pandemic, Moses did not allow the Israelites to move forward and leave behind those who were ill and Aaron cared for the Israelites struck by leprosy who were in physical quarantine. To me this is a Biblical teaching that when it is necessary for public health to place people in isolation, society as a whole cannot move on until those who have been stricken with disease are cared for and restored to the community.
This week, Achrei Mot, Leviticus 16-18, is read as the first half of a double Torah portion along with Kedoshim, Leviticus 19 and 20. This second parsha begins with the imperative “Kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem!” “All of you, be Holy!” (If you ask why, the answer is simply I, Adonai your God say so.)
In verses 19:16 we are commanded: “Do not stand idly by or deal corruptly” with your countrymen. “Do not profit by the blood of your fellowman. Ani Adonai!” I hear, in this verse , God telling us that if you ask why in a pandemic I should not put myself before others, it is simply because God commands us to act ethically and morally even if it’s against our instinctive nature.
The Sifre, a collection of Midrash on Leviticus, understood this verse as commanding us “to not stand idly by while another’s blood is shed. If you see someone in danger you are obligated to protect that person.”
I find here in the Sifre commentary the antithesis of the silence of Aaron in response to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu. When the coronavirus was just a “Chinese problem” or just an “Italian problem,” did not America stand idly by, while the blood of others was shed? Has our self-centeredness led us to ignore the summary command of this chapter in verse 19:18?
“Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people. Love your neighbor as yourself! Ani Adonai!”
Loving our neighbor, rather than acting out of vengeance or being inequitable in our aid for others because of a grudge, is a fundamental condition of our covenant with God.
Living in quasi isolation and witnessing the death of so many by an invisible virus leaves me, and, I am sure, most of you reading this column, anxious, fearful, and sad. Like Aaron, my response over these past two months has often been silence and sadness. Other times, I felt rage at the failure of our government to respond. Officiating electronically at a funeral, attending a virtual shiva minyan, or saying Kaddish for my mother on her yahrzeit via Zoom are not the same as being physically together with family, friends, and community. Researching and writing this d’var Torah has challenged me to move beyond but not away from my Aaron-like sadness at the loss of innocent life. Just as Aaron in last week’s portion dealt with a biblical pandemic by isolating the infected from the healthy, but not leaving the ill behind, we, too, as an American society, a Jewish community, and an interconnected world cannot leave the afflicted to suffer and go back to “business as usual” until we find a way to control and ultimately eliminate this 21st century plague of covid-19.
Moreover, as we journey from our own personal and worldwide Egypt toward the Sinai of Shavuot next month, let us recognize that the covid-19 plague is a reminder that the vision of the prophet Zachariah, whose words we recite daily at the conclusion of the Aleinu prayer for “a messianic age when all the world will acknowledge the oneness of humankind” and our unity with the oneness of God requires us to first repair the world by taking seriously our individual and communal responsibility to adhere to the command of God in Leviticus 19:18:
“Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against another! Love your neighbor as yourself!”
Let us all pray that by the time we reach Shavuot in June this year, that the pillars of cloud and fire that we are experiencing will be lifted and that we will be liberated from the plague of covid-19 and will freely accept the responsibilities of Torah and become full partners with God in the repair of this world.