Drash on Acharei Mot 2019
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue
After the death of Lori Gilbert Kaye in San Diego this past Shabbat morning, after the death of 250 people in Sri Lankan hotels and churches on Easter morning, after the death of 50 people in Christchurch at two mosques during Friday’s sacred Muslim prayers, after the death of 11 people at Etz Chayim in Pittsburgh on Shabbat morning, after the deaths attacking Jews, Muslims, and Christians on sacred days in sacred spaces, we are left speechless. How? Why? Will this ever stop? Is this our new reality? Is this the world we’re leaving to our children and grandchildren?
This week’s parsha, Acharei Mot, commences with G-d speaking with Moses after the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, “…after they drew too close to the presence of G-d” (Lev. 16:1). Some Jewish commentators say Nadav and Avihu were arrogant, thinking they were better than their father, the High Priest, and had the chutzpa to offer “aish zahav-strange fire”without a Divine command, thus the boys were punished. Some say they were drunk and acting foolishly as they entered the Holy Temple, thus they were punished. Some say the boys were in the wrong place at the wrong time, as G-d sent fire to consume Aaron’s offering and the boys just happened to walk in the path of that Divine fire, thus their deaths were an accident.
Although I am personally troubled by all three explanations, the perushim (commentaries) share something in common - the human desire, arguably, the human need, to try and find meaning in challenging circumstances. We so desperately want to know why Nadav and Avihu were killed. We so desperately hope to find solace, or at least, closure, in that meaning. We so desperately pray there is something to be learned so that their death will not be in vain. And yet, the Torah says: “Va’yidom Aharon– And Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). Sometimes, there is no response. There are no words. Meaning is lost.
This week’s parsha begins with acharei mot, then continues to talk about the rituals of Yom Kippur. One odd ritual observed in ancient times was the transferring of the sins of the people to the “scapegoat” that was sent to wander, eventually off a cliff. The cohainha’gadol(high priest) then changed his clothes, re-entered the kadosh kedoshim(Holy of Holies), and made a sacrifice on behalf of himself and the people. Aside from the obvious issue of animal cruelty, we must ask, what is this all about? The easy answer is that this ritual is no longer relevant, as we have no Beit Mikdash(Temple in Jerusalem) and no longer perform animal sacrifices. We have evolved beyond this tribal ritual. However, I believe this response is always a “cop out” answer. As thinking, progressive-minded Jews, we are called upon to learn from our ancient teachings. So, learn we must!
My interpretation of this odd ritual is the need to acknowledge the wrong that we do and that is done by others in our community and let it go, let it plummet to its death (like the poor goat). Then we must “change our clothes” (like the high priest), a metaphor for the way we present ourselves as we re-enter sacred space (thekadosh kedoshim), which could be a metaphor for a religious place of worship, any space we deem to be sacred, or simply the space between human beings. Then, we bring ourselves closer to G-d.
So, why begin this parshawith “acharei mot” and continue to talk about sacrifice and atonement of Yom Kippur. If I were not a religious person, I’d look at this whole parsha and think it’s meshuga(crazy). But, as a religious person, as a progressive-minded Jew, and as a passionate human being, I, like so many centuries of Jews before me, look for meaning, for solace, and for lessons to be learned. So, this is my learning for this week:
After the deaths of so many innocent Jews, Muslims, and Christians, innocent tourists regardless of their religious or cultural background, I have no words. I continue to be shocked and shattered. And yet, life continues. We must move forward. We must send our fears, anger, hatred, and cynicism plummeting to their death. Then, we must re-group, change our perspective from one of shock and despair to one of hope and determination. Only then can we hope to re-enter sacred space again…sacred space between us and all humanity. We must gain perspective. We must remember that as horrific as the events all around the world have been, even with the increase in frequency and number of terrorist attacks, more good events occur around the world more frequently than can be reported. It’s important not to deny or erase what has been happening, to honour those who lost their lives to vengeful hatred. It is also important to change our cloths, to regain perspective as we work to create sacred space between all peoples.
I encourage you to read this article by my colleague, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center in Washington DC: https://rac.org/blog/2019/04/28/our-enemies-will-not-defeat-or-define-us%20