By Rabbi Eric Yanoff
Parshat Acharei Mot
Is there really an “after” in this life?
Certainly, rabbinic Judaism gives us multiple models and metaphors for an afterlife, but in this life, how do we structure the time after a difficult moment?
Given our collective experiences over the past 2-plus years of pandemic, I find myself newly troubled by the name, the first key words, of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Acharei Mot. We begin: “God spoke to Moses after the death (acharei mot) of Aaron’s sons, who died when they drew too close to the Divine Presence …” (Vayyikra 16:1).
For millennia, rabbis and other scholars have tried to explain Aaron’s sons’ sudden, tragic and mysterious death, which is described in more detail back in Chapter 10 of the Book of Leviticus. Here, the allusion seems almost heartless in its passing, breezy mention — as if to say, “Now, where were we? Ah yes, you know, right after this unspeakable, unimaginable loss, we’re back to business with the laws …”
As with so many of our modern media, it can be difficult to read tone into certain sections of the Torah — but here, I worry that the words “acharei mot” (after the death) feel like little more than a reference point, a calibration — itself not so important, except in its role to keep us on track. Perhaps even more unfeeling is the first reminder given to Aaron, via Moses, that he should be more careful and less flippant than his sons when he approaches the Divine Presence.
Might Aaron hear this as “they should have known better, don’t you make the same mistake,” a warning that in some way rationalizes the loss in a time when it is still “acharei” — just after, still raw? Is such an admonition even necessary? Wouldn’t Aaron be instinctively reluctant to get too close to God after this shocking trauma? (Indeed, he is hesitant to resume his priestly duties, as we read at the end of Chapter 10 of Leviticus.)
And given that the next laws in our parshah are about national and personal atonement rituals for the priesthood, might Aaron hear that as God and his brother Moses ascribing blame to Aaron’s loss?
Regardless of whether Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu “deserved” their punishment of death (and given the rabbis’ struggle over the centuries to explain or justify that shocking moment, I’d say that’s an unsettled question!), the follow-up words of acharei mot six chapters later, feel too cursory. Immediately in the wake of the loss, Aaron is struck speechless with the pain of loss (10:3). Just a few weeks later in our reading, and just six chapters in the Torah text, is he really recovered, to the point that he feels it is “after” such a trauma?
It may be true that both cataclysmic and pinnacle moments can serve as key markers in our lives. But when we mention such moments, they are not just reference points. As with a Yizkor service or a yahrzeit, we return to purposefully, mournfully reflect on these moments, to their emotional tugs on our hearts. It feels too cavalier to simply state, factually, “this was after one of the worst, most unexpected, most traumatic moments of your life.”
As a rabbi, present with people working through different stages of grief, including the cyclical return to that loss through memorializing, I have come to appreciate the maxim that, in our healthiest psychological selves, we do not just get past a heartbreak; we go through a heartbreak.
There was a time, early in the pandemic, when I was hopeful for some triumphant moment of “return” to normalcy. We envisioned a spirited collective b’nai mitzvah and other celebrations. After such a long time of emotional exhaustion, the return has been less triumphant and more incremental.
At Adath Israel, we are still planning a more subdued series of group life-cycle events (in addition to the individualized ones), which we’ve entitled “Making up for Lost Times”: an acknowledgment last week of those who experienced loss over the past two years but did not benefit from the communal outpouring of condolence that comes with fully attended funerals and shivas, a group aliyah so that the community can celebrate our b’nai and b’not mitzvah, a delayed aufruf-style aliyah for wedding couples, and a baby-naming berachah (for boys and girls, some of whom, now out of infancy, will toddle themselves to the Torah).
In a dystopian moment, T.S. Eliot imagined the aftermath of the world “not with a bang, but a whimper.” The Israeli poet Natan Alterman reimagined Chaim Weizmann’s statement that a Jewish state would not be given to us on a silver platter as personified by young soldiers, “dressed in battle gear, dirty, shoes heavy with grime … ascend(ing) the path quietly … still bone weary from days and from nights in the field, full of endless fatigue and unrested, yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head … (saying), ‘We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given …”
Let us, incrementally emerge from this time of pandemic — far from triumphant, but weary and weathered by loss — both the loss of life and the social-emotional toll that continues to affect us in varying degrees. We are far from acharei.
Even as we venture forth, let us do so with humility and care — with the years 2020-2022 not a dark reference point but rather a learning, a cause for softer words toward one another … a font of caring, viewed not as a hashmark on some timeline that we get past, but rather an arduous period that we go through, together.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is a rabbi of Adath Israel in Merion Station and is the immediate past co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The board is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.