Acharei Mot. After death. That’s how last Shabbat’s Torah portion begins, barely referencing the tragic loss of Aaron’s two sons that previously occurred. The text doesn’t focus on mourning. It doesn’t focus on grief. It just gets back to business. After the death of Aaron’s two sons, the Torah explains that God speaks to Moses and continues to instruct him on the laws of offerings and how Aaron must preside over these offerings.
I am left wondering why the Torah doesn’t give us, or Aaron the High Priest, time to grieve. When this loss occurred in Leviticus chapter 10, the Torah simply states that Aaron was silent. I can’t get over these words though: Acharei mot, after death, especially after the deadly mass shooting at the Chabad of Poway, California a little over a week ago on the final day of Passover, six months to the day since the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Because we cannot simply move on. We cannot do what the Torah is telling us and just act like all is normal. We cannot accept this as the new normal. There is nothing normal about shootings at houses of worship. There is nothing normal about accepting mass shootings as a part of society. There is nothing normal about anti-semitism rearing its head and causing harm in the most violent attacks on Jews in our country’s history. But somehow, for whatever reason, we do. Only here. Nowhere else in the world. And we wait until the 24-hour news cycle has moved on to the next topic, and like the Torah even does, Acharei Mot, after death, we move on.
The Sifra, the halakhic midrashic word on the book of Leviticus, explains that these laws regarding entering the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, at inopportune times were commanded directly after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu so that one can understand the deadly consequences of one’s actions. The problem with this midrashic interpretation is that it is telling us to live our lives in fear. Midrash is suggesting that we should fear death and act accordingly. I refuse to do so.
Rabbi Yisrael Goldstein, the rabbi of Chabad of Poway, refused to be immediately treated for his wounds, after the shooter shot off his two index fingers, as he held his hands up to try to protect himself and his community, from the gunfire raining down on his community at the hands of a domestic terrorist with an AR-15. Instead, he used whatever he could find to stop the bleeding, including a tallit, a prayer shawl, and gathered the congregation outside their sacred space that had become a crime scene.
He pulled a chair and in front of the building, stood on the chair and gave the sermon he was going to give and started saying over and over again, Am Yisrael Chai. “Am Yisrael Chai,” he said. “We are a Jewish people that will stand tall. And we will not let anyone or anything take us down.” He was essentially teaching the opposite of what this week’s parasha suggests, we do not live our lives based on fear. We do not fear for our own lives because of those whose lives were lost. Instead, we say what Rabbi Goldstein said, Am Yisrael Chai. We are proud of who we are and will never hide who we are or what we believe.
At the Passover seder where we celebrated being freed from slavery through a festive meal and ritual retelling, we still said “Hashata L’Avday, L’shana Haba’ah b’nai chorin, We are still slaves. Next year, may we be fully free.” At the meal when we celebrated freedom, we acknowledged that we are not yet fully free. And in 2019, in America, in a country and at a time when Jews have experienced more religious freedom than at any other time in Jewish history of 2000 years living in the diaspora, we are still not free from anti-semitism. And society is not free from hatred. We say these words because we recognize that we cannot truly be free until we are all free. This tragic shooting in Poway on the last day of our holiday that celebrates freedom was just a reminder of that. We will not simply move on Acharei Mot, after death. We will not simply continue like this is the new normal.
During these days between Passover and Shavuot, we count the Omer. These days of counting the omer representing our people’s spiritual wandering, as we wandered throughout the wilderness, from the exodus from Egypt until Revelation at Sinai, lost. After another deadly anti-semitic incident, we feel lost. We are left wandering in a tearful daze. But we will not simply move on, Acharei Mot, like this is the new normal. We will proudly declare, as Rabbi Goldstein did, Am Yisrael Chai, and live our lives as Jews with pride, fighting to ensure our freedom, and everyone’s freedom from hatred and bigotry.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky