Boston and “After the Death”

When tragedy strikes, what do you need to do to remain balanced and react in a positive fashion? What kinds of rules should we adopt to keep our society safe, healthy, and open?

BAM's message of support for Boston

Brooklyn Art Museum's message of support for Boston

The parasha (Torah portion) this week, Acharey Mote/After the Death, opens with a reference back to the inexplicable death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Remember them? The ones back in Leviticus chapter 10 verses 1-2? Not only were those deaths kind of shocking, the Torah captures the reaction of their father, Aaron, in one pain-filled, two-word sentence, “Va-yidom Aharon” — “And Aaron was silent.” Because really, what can one say when confronted with an inexplicable and seemingly senseless death?

Even though Acharey Mote refers back to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, for me, this week, the opening words of this parasha referred to the deaths and horrifying maiming of the victims of the terrorist attack at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this past Monday, April 15, also known as Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts.

There has been so much written about the attack and its immediate aftermath, and we know so little right now about the perpetrator and their reasons. But we do know some things, for example, about the astoundingly brave way in which those unharmed, both spectators and runners, rushed to help the injured. One of the columns that helped put the atrocity in perspective for me appeared in the New York Times, written by Thomas Friedman. Friedman urges us to focus on our reactions — that is, not to give the terrorists the advantage of deciding how we react. How we react is up to us, he reminds us. And he begins his column with a reference to how Israelis have decided to react to the multiple terrorist attacks they have been subjected to over the past decades.

In shock and dismay, I looked at the photos, as I imagine thousands of others did, and thought of how much the scene in Boston resembled scenes in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after a bus bombing or other terrorist attack. Coincidently (or maybe not) on Monday, Israelis observed Yom Ha-Zikaron/Israeli Memorial Day, immediately followed by Yom Ha’atzma’ut/Israeli Independence Day, on Tuesday. The juxtaposition of these two observances with our parasha led Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, who lives and works in Israel, to remark on how the parasha sheds light on the pain and joy embodied in these 2 days. He remarks:

the opposite side of the pain is life — choosing and embracing life with fervor, zest, and appreciation. The calendar reminds us that we must pause to reflect on these two aspects of the Jewish journey.

Moving back to Acharey Mote, our G-dcast storyteller, Amichai Lau-Lavie, helps us think about the threads that connect this parasha together. He wants us to see these chapters as a modern “Operations Manual” for the Tabernacle, and lists the 3 subject areas the manual covers: eating meat, having sex, and atonement (for when we do wrong and have to go “oops”).

At the outset, Lau-Lavie says that the parasha deals with the aftermath of the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, and explores ways to react to their deaths. He later comments that we often need to look beyond literal instructions to find symbolic meaning in what the Torah prescribes for our behavior, whether in the realm of eating meat, or in our sexual lives, or when we have gone astray and need to atone. The organizing principle, he suggests, is that we impose a kind of discipline in our lives — and follow the appropriate rules listed in whatever operations manual we find compelling, to navigate the uncertainties, the pains, the unbridled desires, the ups and the downs of life. While there may be many different interpretations to the rules and regulations set forth in our parasha, nevertheless our storyteller wants us to know that the bottom line is that discipline matters.

Circling back to the tragedy on Monday in Boston, discipline mattered a great deal. Without the discipline of the first responders and medical personnel, many more victims would have lost their lives, not only their limbs, as horrible as that is. The discipline of the marathoners to listen to the police instructions mattered. The discipline of the spectators — to help and comfort victims, to tie tourniquets, and to do whatever was asked — mattered. The discipline of the journalists not to report unconfirmed rumors mattered.

What each of us takes away from this terrorist attack matters. We need discipline to react in ways that re-enforce our cherished freedoms, our trust in others, our humanity, our belief that good can and will triumph over evil.

No Good Reason

This week’s Torah portion (parasha) contains one of only two narratives in the entire book of Leviticus — the rest of Leviticus is made up of laws, rules, and instructions. The story this week is of the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and appears at the beginning of chapter 10 and is only 3 verses long. (But don’t worry — we also get rules, about food!, this week too. Read on…)

It is a poignant and tragic tale, partly due to its brevity, partly due to its strangeness. It leaves us with an overarching sense of injustice, and we are left with many questions but few answers. Why exactly did these men die? What does “alien fire” mean? Why would God want to kill young priests offering sacrificial incense?

You might imagine that these questions provide fertile ground for rabbinic inquiry, and you would be right. A number of midrashim (stories that come to fill in the blanks) were suggested by the rabbis of the Talmud about the deaths of Aaron’s sons. In chapter 9 of his book Reading The Book: Making The Bible A Timeless Text, Rabbi Burt Visotsky, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes about sibling rivalry in the Bible. He explores the rivalry between Aaron and his more famous brother, Moses, and their sister, Miriam.

The literature is thoroughly divided on explaining how it came to pass that on the very day of Aaron’s investiture as High Priest, his two sons were put to death by fire from heaven. The puzzling death of the two siblings, Nadav and Avihu, is reported in the Bible on four separate occasions. Each time, the account differs until we are left with no clear idea of what actually happened…..

Professor Visotsky and his colleague, Dr. Avigdor Shinan of the Hebrew University, have laid out 12 separate reasons the traditional commentators gave for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Visotsky compares this gamut of explanations to the various points of view in the Japanese film Rashomon, in which the filmmaker, Kurosawa, wants the viewer to understand that a story has no objective truth and that it changes depending on who is telling the story. The same events can be interpreted in vastly different ways. What happened to Aaron’s sons is beyond comprehension — hence the 12 very different reasons from the rabbis who tried to make sense of a tragic and ultimately perplexing loss.

And what do we know of Aaron’s reaction? “And Aaron was silent.” This loss of two sons was beyond words — Aaron was speechless. The brother who was the mouthpiece, the one who was to speak to the Pharaoh for Moses, is left without words in the face of his heartbreaking loss. Sometimes in the face of overwhelming tragedy, the best behavior is silence.

Then, on a completely different wave length, (or as our G-dcast storyteller says, “now that this unpleasantness is behind us”) the parasha also lays out some of the rules of kashrut, enumerating explicitly which animals Jews are allowed to eat and which are forbidden. The storyteller presents this information from chapter 11 of Leviticus in a catchy song:

Eating is one of the most basic functions of a living, breathing creature, humans included. If we are lucky, we eat 3 meals a day, both to sustain us and to give us pleasure. The Torah is concerned with what we consume as food/fuel. In parashat Sh’mini, this weeks portion, we get the full rule book on what is in the YES column and what is in the NO column.

Notice that no explicit reason is given in the Torah for why some of these animals, birds, and fish are forbidden for Jews to eat. Kind of like the idea that there is no explicit reason that two of Aaron’s sons are consumed by the fire of the sacrificial alter, even though the G-dcast storyteller suggests a few, like one of the better known rabbinic “reasons” — that Nadav and Avihu were drunk, and therefore in no state to perform the holy acts of offering up the incense.

It occurs to me that we are only several days past the last crumbs of matzah from 8 days of Passover, when there were many restrictions on what kinds of food Jews were allowed to consume and what was forbidden — anything made from the five grains that could become hametz (leavened). On an outing to the local grocery store’s kosher section, you could see food products, many produced in Israel, that bore the label, “kosher for Passover;” these are foods that come out only at this time of year.

It’s worth a few moments of contemplation on what all of these restrictions mean to people observing the kashrut laws, both those derived from this week’s parasha and those that apply to the 8 days of Passover. Also worth noting are all of the various kinds of restrictions people freely adopt concerning the kind of food they will eat and what they deem forbidden for either health or environmental reasons… from veganism to abstaining from gluten or sugar, from raw foodists to those who will not eat any foods that have been processed commercially. Once you start thinking about the various categories of food that people will or will not eat, the laws of kashrut in chapter 11 are no longer so strange!