“After the Death…”

Aharei Mot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 29, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

The name of this week’s parasha, “After the Death,” captures our state of mind as Americans. In the wake of the carnage in Oklahoma City we fear acts of terrorism more than acts of nature. An earthquake or hurricane can be devastating, but never vicious. As it smashes our pride, an act of nature fills us with awe, not loathing or revulsion. In one horrifying episode, we realize again the stark truth that for all of humanity’s daunting conquests of nature, we have barely begun to conquer ourselves. Americans are as vulnerable to the demented fury of the allegedly aggrieved as anyone else.

Each morning as I walk through the closed black gates of the Seminary’s entrance, I dutifully open my briefcase for inspection and show my ID card. For a time after the bombing of the World Trade Center, the police department banned all parking on the streets that run along the front and back of the Seminary, an enormous inconvenience to the faculty, students and staff who park on the street. Currently the Seminary spends more than $500,000 a year for 24–hour security at its three sites on Morningside Heights. Terrorism has come to concern us more than crime, which is way down in the neighborhood and the city.

The title of our parasha is a kind of aftershock from one of the few brief narratives in all of Leviticus. Like the tragedy in Oklahoma City, it deals with the sudden and inexplicable death of children. Our parasha begins: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord (Leviticus 16:1).” The belated reference to the fate of Aaron’s sons hints at a subliminal desire to revisit a wound inadequately treated when inflicted. Nothing could have been more crushing to Aaron than the public loss of two sons on the very day of his inauguration as the nation’s high priest, the guardian of God’s newly finished Tabernacle. The brutal sequence of triumph and defeat, of divine acceptance and rejection reduced him to a numbed silence of indeterminate grief.

The details of the story are so sparse as to be extraneous. After eight days of a carefully executed consecration ceremony, Aaron’s sacrifice on the altar, the first ever, is consumed by an indisputable sign of divine favor: the fire on the altar is kindled by God. Nadab and Abihu then approach spontaneously with fire and incense of their own making and pay with their lives. The Torah taunts us with the cryptic remark that the fire had not been commanded by God and therefore was deemed to be alien.

But I have been persuaded by Professor Edward Greenstein of the Seminary’s Bible Department to read this story existentially rather than critically. The death of Aaron’s sons was not the result of a miscue in the prescribed choreography of the Tabernacle. Their fate conveys the far deeper and more unsettling truth that no amount of elaborate, awesome and precisely executed ritual should ever leave us with the illusion that we have brought God under human control. The very moment the Tabernacle comes into service, Israel is taught the sober lesson that God’s will remains free and inscrutable, God’s wisdom unfathomable. The religion of the Torah is not a set of magical techniques to get God to do our bidding, but rather a quest to invest our lives with meaning. To rein in the erratic and destructive passions of the earth’s most intelligent animal, that is the Torah’s desperate mission.

Hence, early in the book of Leviticus we are put on notice that all our cultic precautions will not spare us the inconsolable grief of sudden calamity. Suffering is part of life in an unfinished and ever–changing world. The unimaginable loss of two sons at the peak moment of religious achievement confirms the inescapable presence of imminent danger. To be born is to be at risk. Aaron’s silence suggests that resignation is a state of anguish alleviated by insight.

Judaism asks us to praise God for the evil that befalls us as well as the good. When death strikes down someone dear to us, we struggle to intone the ancient affirmation, “Praised be the God of truth.” Monotheism is inclusive; it does not tolerate an alternate source of evil. Each morning we aver in our prayers that God is the creator of both light and darkness. The scriptural basis for such a supreme act of self–transcendence, the suppression of our rage, is the second verse of the Shema: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).” Our love of God is not to collapse even when we are sundered from our soul.

The reaffirmation of God’s goodness in pain is courageous and constructive. We refuse to allow the onset of chaos to destroy the framework of our faith. We are not the victims of contending deities. Nor can the grandeur of God’s creation be measured by our personal fate. Much that happens to us defies our capacity to comprehend. Nevertheless, in the midst of despair, we dare to grope for light, for meaning and for structure. The Kaddishis not a prayer of mourning and lament, but a paean to God’s sovereignty and compassion.

Judaism can only help us avert the severity of our suffering, not suffering itself, and it does that by endowing us with a life–sustaining attitude. In extremity, all that is left in our control is the attitude we take toward our fate, a vestige of freedom we should never despise. Not only can an assertion of will extract a mote of meaning from a hopeless situation, but it can also leave a legacy of inspiration to those who will suffer after us. Through its precepts, Judaism fortifies us to endure life’s setbacks.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch