Acharei Mot 2016 - 5776

Post date: May 7, 2016 3:20:27 PM


Many people talk about the Judeo-Christian values on which the United States Constitution and laws are based. But there are important differences between Mosaic Law (based on Torah) and the adversarial system of justice we have in the USA. Today’s Torah portion hints at one major difference, which is about how guilt and responsibility are assigned.

The reading for this week, Acharei Mot (after the death of…) continues the narrative following the death of Aaron’s two sons (Lev. 10), although 5 chapters of laws separate the death of the sons (they had offered strange fire that God had not commanded them to offer and were toch’lu – devoured – by God) with today’s parsha at chapter 16, where God commands Moses to command Aaron to present both a sin-offering and a burnt offering.

Reading this narrative, it is clear that Aaron is required to make a sin offering after the loss of two of his sons, but for what sin is he atoning? Is he required to take responsibility for his grown sons’ deaths? Perhaps he is considered responsible for their behavior that led to their deaths?

I believe that these animal sacrifices, while arcane in relation to our worship practices today, reflect a deep and powerful understanding of the psyche. It does not matter whether Aaron is directly responsible for his sons’ deaths or not. He undoubtedly feels guilt. Anecdotally, my son Isaac was around 2 years old when I helped him to learn to ride a tricycle in our driveway. He took to it quickly. Excited, I straddled the trike to hold him still for a moment, as I shouted for Shelli to watch. But just as I called Shelli’s name, Isaac fell face first onto the pavement. He bloodied his face and broke one of his front teeth. I felt guilty. Yes, I took precautions. No, it was not my fault. But I felt guilty, and did so for a long time.

And so it is whenever something bad happens. Compassionate human beings feel guilt. We search for anything we could have done better. In a way, it’s easier to blame ourselves for tragedies than to accept that the world in which we live can be horribly cruel and completely arbitrary. The sin offering acknowledges and respects that feeling in us. It gives us a way to accept that part of us, and take action. It allows us to expiate our sense of guilt.

Then there was the Olah, the burnt offering. Unlike all the other animal sacrifices, which were eaten in community, the burnt offering was completely burned to ashes. No human being received any nourishment from the Olah. It was something that existed momentarily, then vanished, leaving only an empty space. The giving of an Olah was an exercise in complete submission to forces beyond our control. It was saying, in effect, that I can own this thing right now, but I do not really have the power to keep it. It can be taken away from me at any moment, and there may be nothing I can do to stop it. Ultimately, we need to rely on God for every moment we have in relation to this thing, but when God takes it - or me - away, that relationship is severed forever.

This was the second message that Aaron had to internalize. Whether he was partially guilty or completely innocent of his sons’ deaths, ultimately, life and death are God’s domain. We can not live forever. The death of a child can cause the most unbearable pain, yet bear it we must.

Ultimately, whatever the reasons for them, Aaron’s sin offering and burnt offering allowed him to return to and remain a part of his people.

Many of the roots used in today’s parsha – avon, chaper - harken back to Yom Kippur, our yearly collective atonement for sin. In fact, the first chapter of today’s parsha is read on Yom Kippur. In addition to informing the liturgy and theology of Yom Kippur, it also falls during the period of the Omer, where we have behavioral similarities to our Day of Atonement. During the Omer, we make observance with our bodies by refraining from cutting our hair (especially easy for me) and not listening to live music (especially difficult for me), and on Yom Kippur we fast in order to observe with our entire bodies. On Yom Kippur, we have a particular dress code (to wear white), and during the Omer, we are forbidden from buying new clothes. These are, I believe, solemn acts. It is not necessarily a time of sadness and grief, but rather a time of self-reflection, deep thought, and acknowledgment of our best and worst selves.

It is this process of self-reflection that prepares us to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

When we reach the end of the Omer, we will have a tremendous opportunity as a Jewish people - to come together and accept a foundational text that has and will shape our lives and our history. This joyous occasion comes about only after our period of self-reflection, repentance, prayer, and tzedakah. Similarly, after the period of reflection and repentance on the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe), we have the feast of Sukkot. In order to remain part of the community that celebrates these feasts and receives the text of the Torah, we must spend this time, during the Omer and during the Days of Awe, engaging in the difficult process of self-reflection, forgiveness, and ultimately, acceptance. Without this challenge first, we risk ourselves being torn away - cut off - from the community that is about to rejoice together.

A Chinese proverb notes: He who has not tasted that which is bitter, does not know that which is sweet. In order for us to be the best we can be in our community, it is important that as individuals, we forgive whatever shortcomings we perceive in ourselves and that we accept that which we cannot change. These inward acts give us permission to see and enjoy our abundant blessings in our community, in our festivals, and in our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Samuel Asher, Yvonne Asher