This week’s Torah portion is called Acharei Mot, which means “after death.” We took a break from the regular Torah reading cycle for the festival of Passover, and pick it up this week with these words which, in the text, refer to the death of the sons of Aaron, the High Priest. His two sons, Nadav and Avihu, were serving in their capacity as priests when they drew close to the altar with an unsanctioned sacrifice and were killed.
The story, which is described a few chapters before, reads,
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before God alien fire, which was 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 God said:
Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people.”
And Aaron was silent.
It is a powerful story. Oftentimes when reading this we focus on the act of Nadav and Avihu. What was the “alien fire”? Was their punishment just? What, exactly, did they do wrong? All interesting questions. But it is worth paying attention to Aaron as well. Aaron, the High Priest, who with his family is newly ordained into service and initiates the sacrificial system, which, when started goes tragically wrong. The death is unexpected, sudden, harsh. His only response is silence.
What is in the silence? Shock? Pain? Fear? Anger? Probably all of these things. These are the responses to sudden, unexpected loss. This is not the way things are supposed to be.
I’ve experienced this as a personal response, this weekend marks the 23rd yartzeit of my father-in-law, Rabbi Myron Kinberg, who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 51. The shock and pain were indescribable. With my relationship with Yohanna but two months old, I served mostly as a witness at the time. As time went on, and our family grew, the echo of the sudden loss continued to reverberate.
And we experience this communally, as we enter this Shabbat one week after the shootings at the Chabad center in Poway, CA. Just six months after the shootings in Pittsburgh the peace of Shabbat was once again disrupted by a gunman, seeking to harm Jews, seeking to cause destruction. The shock and pain are again indescribable. As we move forward with our communal Jewish life, the echo of this sudden loss will continue to reverberate.
We tend not to like silence, we tend to want to fill the void after a sudden loss with words. After a personal loss we want to say the right thing, offer comfort and support. The same after a communal tragedy; we want to search for reasons, find answers, offer analysis. Yet, as Aaron demonstrated, in the immediate aftermath, perhaps no words will suffice.
And now we pick up the story six chapters later with the words “After the death of Aaron’s sons…” and text goes on to describe the atonement ritual that is to be performed on Yom Kippur, as well as other particulars of Aaron’s priestly duty. In other words, there is hope that after tragic loss life will continue. But the fact that the text mentions specifically “after the death of Aaron’s sons…” is a recognition that the loss is always with us, and that our lives are forever altered by it.
Next month we will celebrate my nephew’s bar mitzvah and my son’s high school graduation, two happy milestones that my father-in-law did not live to see. Indeed, he did not live to meet any of his five grandchildren. Life continues, but we are deeply aware of is absence that is particularly felt at these important events.
And as we move on from Poway (and Pittsburgh), we are keenly aware of that loss that, as a Jewish community, will always be with us. As a Jewish community we will never be the same, the fear and anger that accompanied those attacks will impact us both in practical ways, as we assess our own security, and in emotional ways as well.
There will be lessons learned, stories shared, memories invoked. After death, there is continued life. Yet after death there is also silence in the face of knowing that things will never be he same.