Parashat Achrei Mot—Kedoshim: Looking at pandemic through the lens of Leviticus

Parashat Achrei Mot—Kedoshim: Looking at pandemic through the lens of Leviticus

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

As I sat down to write this d’var Torah, intending to use Parshat Achrei Mot — Kedoshim as a mirror on the past year of living through the covid-19 pandemic, I was surprised to see in my computer files that I had actually written a d’var Torah on this same parsha and the very topic in April of 2020. Since I believe that the purpose of a d’var Torah is to use Torah as a lens through which we view our contemporary place in time and space, and simultaneously to  view Torah through our own current experiences, my goal today is to look at the same passages of our double portion that I discussed last year from the perspective of my personal journey out of the pandemic and into a “new normal.”

Last year I wrote: “As we wrestle to live through the plague of covid-19, 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, translates to me as a Divine call to us: ‘After death be holy!’ As we live through the massive loss of life in a state of quarantine that leaves mourners with the inadequacy of virtual funerals and shiva minyans and comforters 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?

This year, with the gift of vaccines, we are hopefully emerging from the cycle of the fear and sadness of death and disease and the accompanying need for quarantine and isolation that has become the norm this past year. My question this year is: Achrei Mot, after the devastating year of death we have experienced, how will we be changed?

As we look at the opening of this week’s Torah reading in Leviticus 16, Aaron has certainly changed. The Torah picks up the narrative of Leviticus 10, which had been interrupted by five chapters of details concerning ritual laws that deal primarily with the issue of public efforts to avoid a pandemic.

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; thus they died at the instance of God…. And Aaron was silent.”

In Leviticus 16, the Torah returns our attention to the death of Aaron’s sons.

“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.”

Last year, I wrote of the “ish iti” mentioned in chapter 16, saying: “I believe that the ‘ish iti,’ the nameless person of the moment, is a paradigm for thousands of health care workers who are on their job of seeking to heal so many from this mysterious disease, while rising to perform the mitzvah of comforting the dying who are cut off from contact with family and friends. 

As I seek meaning for the death of so many whose fate is like those of Nadav and Abihu, incomprehensible, I find Aaron’s silence an understandable but insufficient response.”

This year, with 20-20 hindsight, I have come to realize that my feeling of helplessness was very human and natural. I also believe that the message of Tazria -Metzora, the double portion that interrupts the flow of the story of the death of Nadav and Abihu, has new meaning for me. While people, including communal leaders, are devastated by mysterious deaths, and the fear of plagues, it is nonetheless the responsibility of communal leaders to seek solutions to the medical challenges of a pandemic and to simultaneously take measures, including quarantine, to protect the public health. Moses and Aaron’s efforts throughout the wilderness epic brought them eternal merit, but as we witness in the many acts of rebellion described in the Book of Numbers did not bring them popularity within their community as they took action to ameliorate the challenges that their community was facing. 

The lesson I hear this year from Aaron and Moses and from the year of the covid-19 pandemic is that good leadership requires taking actions that are necessary for the common good, even when they are not popular.

Looking at the covid-19 pandemic through the lens of the same Torah texts from both Achrei Mot and Kedosim, one year later, has challenged me to move beyond, but not away from, my Aaron-like sadness at the loss of innocent life. In fact I am truly saddened and angered by the knowledge conveyed by public health experts who have worked in both the Trump and Biden administrations that if “We The People’’ had made better decisions on social distancing and other preventative actions that the death toll in America could have been far smaller.

On a positive note, our government, under the leadership of two very different presidents, has provided money both for emergency aid to those most affected by the pandemic and for medical research that has led us to the vaccines that give us hope for controlling covid-19. Unlike Aaron and Moses, too many leaders in America and around the world have refused to take the actions of leading people to take seriously the deadly danger of the virus.. Because of their actions and inactions and the actions and inactions of millions of selfish people, too many have needlessly died from this pandemic.

This year, as we count up the Omer toward Shavuot in mid-May, the increasing percentage of Americans who will be vaccinated will allow us also to count down to the time when we will be liberated from the plague of covid-19. The efforts of medical science are giving us a path to become vaccinated against this deadly disease. However, the equally deadly plagues of hate and self- centeredness, which became even more manifest during this year of the covid-19 pandemic, remain a more dangerous threat to our survival as a humane human society than any biological virus.

But our Torah portion, in Leviticus 19:18, gives us an effective vaccine against this deadly virus, in the command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

May all of choose to not only be inoculated against covid-19 which threatens our bodies, but also the virus of hate that threatens our bodies and our souls, by truly seeing our responsibility to see every “other” as a neighbor, whom God has commanded us to love and whom Aaron has taught us by example, between the lines of his own personal loss of his sons, that we must care for with all our heart, soul, and might.

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