Parashat Acharei Mot 2016
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
We’re still stuck with our matzot. Officially, by Reform and Israeli standards, Pesach ended yesterday night but because the end of the 7th day of Pesach led immediately into Shabbat, many of us will not have had the chance to bake challah or buy bread. And so we find ourselves in limbo, somewhat, still eating the bread of affliction as we inch towards redemption, dreaming of delicious chametz. (I have a suspicion it’s going to be a pizza night for my family after Shabbat goes out!)
The deeper symbolism behind our craving for carbohydrates is our own craving for freedom. When chametz re-enters our lives, we have completed our week of contemplating slavery and we prepare to emerge into the fullness of our daily, remarkably free lives. We leave the Holiday Torah readings behind and pick up our regularly scheduled parshiyot again: this week, Acharei Mot. Shockingly, Acharei Mot – which literally means ‘After the Death’ - picks up where parashat Shemini left off about a month ago, with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest. Just to recap: Nadav and Avihu, during the inauguration of the Tabernacle, overzealously brought a clandestine offering in the Tabernacle, ‘aish zara’, a ‘strange fire’ for which God smote them.
It is one of the most difficult and puzzling passages in the Torah which carries the great emotional weight of questioning God’s justice and goodness in the narrative. However, in between, we read Tazria and Metzora, with their emphasis on ritual purity, and celebrated Pesach. Now we’re back in the narrative thrust of Vayikra where Aaron remains silent in the face of this indescribable tragedy.
So what do we make of this? And what happens next?
Last year, I gave a sermon in which I illustrated the Jewish calendar as a wheel, where each holiday can be linked to its opposite spoke: there is exactly six months between Pesach and the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holy Days. Thus our physical redemption from historical slavery should lead us on a path, by way of Revelation (Shavu’ot) to our spiritual redemption on Yom Kippur. And it is this pattern that reveals itself in Acharei Mot as well: we’ve just exited Mitzrayim, Egypt, and now we are receiving instructions for the High Priest to atone and purify himself on behalf of the Eidah, the community, on Yom Kippur. And who is the High Priest in this case? Aaron, of course, the one who remained silent. The one who is being shoehorned into Divine service with no time to grieve, remember or reflect.
In Parashat Shemini, we read:
“And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire-holder, and they put fire in them and set incense on it. And they brought forward unfitting fire, which the Eternal had not commanded them, in front of the Eternal. And fire came out from in front of the Eternal and consumed them! And they died in front of the Eternal. And Moses said to Aaron, “That is what the Eternal spoke, saying ‘I shall be made holy through those who are close to me and I shall be honoured in front of the people.’ And – ‘Vayidom Aharon’ – Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10:1-3)
This is not the week to dig into interpretations why Aaron’s sons were killed, although there are two main arguments: either because they were acting out of line, possibly drunk, and transgressed against Divine will or because they were such devout mystics that they were literally consumed by the Divine in their worship. In any case, Aaron’s response is telling: silence. And within this silence, he is called to enter into devout responsibility and holy service. Aaron is dressed in the robes for the Day of Atonement, ‘he shall wear a holy linen coat, and linen drawers shall be on his flesh, and he shall be belted with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen headdress…’ (Lev. 16:4) Here Aaron stands, vulnerable in his grief, exposed in plain white clothes, his heart of glass shattered in his hands. And yet he has to find the courage to come before God, both as a broken man and as a holy vessel, as he atones for all of Israel, sending away the scapegoat into the desert.
What is the deeper meaning to all of this? Is God a cruel tyrant forcing people into service despite their own profound pain? Perhaps. But perhaps this episode can teach us something different, something about the difficulty of freedom (to paraphrase Emmanuel Levinas), the self-effacement of responsibility, the challenge of office and leadership, the self-sacrifice involved in rising to the occasion. Free will comes intimately bound up with obligation. Freedom with responsibility. We are no longer ‘avadim’, slaves so that we could be slaves to something else: our impulses, self-interest or limitations. We are no longer bound in bondage so that we can serve responsibly rather than through brute coercive force. Levinas writes in ‘Difficult Freedom’, his book of essays:
“The personal responsibility of man with regard to man is such that God cannot annul it. This is why, in the dialogue between God and Cain – ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ – rabbinical commentary does not regard the question as a case of simple insolence. Instead, it comes from someone who has not yet experienced human solidarity and who thinks… that each exists for oneself and that everything is permitted.”(‘Responsibility’, page 20).
Regardless of our verdict on Nadav and Avihu, it is a fair assessment that they acted as though they ‘existed for themselves’; they did not consider their responsibilities.
Aaron, in his darkest hour, is the opposite: he assumes the mantel of responsibility in order to fulfill his priestly solidarity with his community. That is what it means to be a free person.
Freedom is difficult. Ironically, it’s not a free ride or a pizza party. Freedom is supposed to chafe and discomfort us. We do not need to be consumed by our impulses or oppressed by those who claim power over us but both Pesach and Yom Kippur teach us that we can be sanctified by rising above ourselves to become responsible, compassionate, proactive versions of ourselves. Our shackles have fallen away yet there is still much work to be done.