After death, holiness…

After death, holiness…

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

Seeking light in the wake of Boston’s black Monday

How can we make sense of Monday’s tragic events in Boston?

A day of celebration of American liberty, Boston’s unique Patriots’ Day holiday, ended in the death, once again, of our innocents and our innocence.

The Torah portion we read this week is the combined Acharei Mot and K’doshim, a double portion whose title translates into English as “After Death, Holiness.”

In the opening of this week’s parashah, Leviticus 16, the Torah picks up the narrative of Leviticus 10, which had been interrupted by five chapters of details about ritual law. In Leviticus 10, we were told:

“Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before God alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is what God meant when He said: “Through those near to Me I show Myself Holy, and assert My authority before all the people.”‘ And Aaron was silent.” (See Leviticus 10:1-3.)

This week, in the Acharei Mot half of the double portion, we are told:

“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.'” (See Leviticus 16:1-2.)

By simply noting that after the death of his sons Nadav and Avihu, Aaron and his remaining sons continue performing their ritual responsibilities, most particularly the ritual of atonement proscribed for Yom Kippur, this week’s Torah reading answers for me the question posed by the narrative in Chapter 10. After the initial silence in response to his sons’ deaths, the High Priest of Israel continued to perform God’s service.

The second half of this week’s double portion is known as K’doshim, Leviticus 19-20. This parashah begins with the imperative “K’doshim T’hiyu!” “Be Holy!” Leviticus 19:1-17 continues with a recasting of the 10 commandments. Verse 19:18, which is the physical center of the Torah – there are an equal number of verses before and after it – demands: “Love your neighbor as yourself, because I am Adonai your God.”

Many of the classic commentators, such as Abraham Ibn Ezra, infer from the text that chapters 10 and 16 are a continuing narrative, that the sin for which Nadav and Avihu were executed was entering the Holy of Holies without Divine invitation. Others have suggested that the “aish zara,” the alien fire, is a reference to some form of idolatry.

At about the very same moment that the sounds of terror rocked the streets of Boston, the sounds of celebration were erupting in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and throughout Israel as the Jewish state celebrated its 65th anniversary. Each year, the sounds and sights of celebration break forth on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, after a day of silence on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, which commemorates all who have fallen in defense of Israel’s inalienable right to be an am chofshi b’artzeynu, a free people in our homeland, the Land of Israel. Moreover, Yom Ha’atzmaut is always preceded by a full week on our Jewish calendar by Yom Hashoah, when we remember our martyred Six Million who died in the ultimate aish zara, the alien fires of Auschwitz, Maidanek, Bergen-Belson, Dachau, Treblinka, and the other concentration camps, or labor camps, or ghettoes.

In the America of post-Waco and 9/11, Israel’s response to terror has much to teach us. The great challenge that has continually faced Israel over the past 65 years has been: How can the State of Israel, and in particular its armed forces, defend the nation and remain holy? That is the challenge that we Americans must confront today: How do we provide, as our pledge of allegiance demands, “liberty and justice for all”?

The answer: Acharei Mot/K’doshim. “After death, holiness.”

After all the deaths of so many thousands to acts of terror here in America, in Israel, and throughout the world, let us, as some siddurim direct us, “pray as if everything depends upon God, and act as if everything depends upon us!”

Let us support the efforts of our government to protect us and understand with patience that the cost of security in both tax dollars and inconvenience will be high.

Let us accept that “justice for all” and security for each of us will require each of us to limit our liberty of access and mobility. Let us also pray, in the words of the great Israel poet Yehuda Amichai, that the call of Isaiah – “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks – will be emended to read: “Beat their swords into plowshares and go on beating and make them into musical instruments, so that whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.”

In memory of the victims of Patriots Day 2013, in memory of the patriots who fell in the battles of Lexington and Concord so that we might stand free today, and in memory of the more than 26,000 who have died since 1860 in pursuit of a Jewish state, Acharei Mot, after all these deaths, let us not stand silent, but rather let us stand together this Shabbat and remember them as we K’doshim, we holy people, sanctify life by affirming that the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness belong to us all, and that we will fight terror by affirming freedom.

This Shabbat, may we honor the memory of the martyred victims of this week’s terror in Boston by recommitting ourselves to the central task of a “kingdom of priests and holy nation”: to make our country, our restored homeland, and our world a better place, a safer place, a holy place.