If the week’s events had been less terrible, I probably would have written this Dvar Torah about the end of the Torah portion this week from Leviticus 20: 24 “… You shall posses their land, for I will give it to you to posses, a land flowing with milk and honey” and its relationship to Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, which is commemorated on April 24th this year. I believe it is necessary for us instead to take the time to focus on what occurred on April 16th in the Dvar Torah this week. We know too well after bearing witness to the events that took place at Virginia Tech, that, events all too often do not go as planned. The translation for Achrei Mot is “After Death,” the very first verse, Leviticus 16:1 And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died…”
Achrei Mot describes the rules for observing Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. It describes how to perform the ritual that the High Priest conducts to cleanse the Israelite community of all their sins once a year. This includes taking two goats; one as a sin offering that is sacrificed and the other as a “scape-goat” that has the sins of the people placed on its back and is then sent away from the community into the wilderness. The Torah warns not to copy the practices of the Egyptians and goes on to give a long list of sexual relationships which are prohibited.
Kedoshim begins with a list of basic laws of Torah including those similar to the Ten Commandments. In addition there are ritual and ethical rules which include: leaving food for the poor, treating those with disabilities correctly, loving the stranger as yourself, having honest business transactions. The Torah also gives the requirement of the death penalty in certain cases, and lists further sexual prohibitions. The end of the portion includes a warning not to follow the practices of the people who inhabit the land which they will possess, “a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Our tradition is full of stories of things turning out differently than we wished. Many of them come from the Torah Portion we read this week. A midrash from Vayikra Rabba comments on the Torah portion, telling of a father who prepares a wedding party for his son. During the party, the son is bitten by a snake and dies. The father tells his guests, “We are not going to recite the blessing for newlyweds, but rather the mourners’ blessing.”
One moment life is safe and routine, if not joyous. Suddenly, life is destroyed and we are left wondering why. The immediate human response seems to be to try to figure out how this could have happened. Even when we discover the facts of what caused the tragedy, we are left with a larger question wondering WHY?
Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu unexpectedly are killed in Leviticus 10:1 when they approach to give an offering to God in an inauguration ceremony for the priesthood. Jewish tradition from every period of Jewish history is filled with answers to why they were killed. The Torah says they were offering “alien fire” and “drew too close” Rashi interprets it to mean that the sons brought an unauthorized offering and it serves as an effective warning to people against this. Divrei Shaul states that they needed to wait to bring their fire until fire descended from Heaven. Si’ah HaSadeh explains that they were enthusiastic beyond their capabilities. Likutei Yehoshua said it was because they were conceited, thinking themselves to be close to God. Vayikra Rabbah suggests that they were drunk and showed a lack of respect. The Zohar says it is because they were unmarried. It is a struggle every year when this story is read in the Torah to try to figure out what did they do to deserve this? Is it a punishment? Was it preventable? The reality remains that they are dead, and there is no satisfying answer to why young people were killed, though we continue to ask.
The Torah portion follows with an elaborate ritual to perform for Yom Kippur. It is to be performed by Aaron, a father who is in mourning for his sons. This ritual can be compared with the mourning rituals that are created in response to terrible tragedies such as the horrific school shootings that have taken place in the United States and around the world. We offer moments of silence, perform ceremonial name readings, light candles at vigils, gather together, share fond memories to honor the lives of those who were taken from us led. We hope that they will help us heal and bring meaning to what seems random and can rob us of our confidence in the world. May these rituals bring us together in community to heal, help us regain our trust and inspire us to make our world a better place.Learn More
Prepared by Lauren Brody-Hyett, Jewish student life coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel and rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Acharei Mot and Kedoshim at MyJewishLearning.com.