What do you do in the aftermath of an unspeakable catastrophe?
This is the question raised by this week’s Torah portion. Its very name—and opening words—Acharei Mot—raise the quandary, as it means “after the death.” In this case, the death is that of Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu, cut down in the prime of their lives when they bring an unusual offering before God and are, in turn, consumed by a fire that leaps forth from the Ark of the Covenant. It is one of the most tragic and inexplicable events in the Torah. The commentators make many efforts to explain it, but none suffice; in the end, we are left with Aaron’s stunned silence and raw grief.
But what follows in the aftermath that our parsha describes this week? Not—as one might expect—details of a funeral or sitting shivah, though one can imagine those things happening. Instead, after briefly recalling Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, the portion goes on to offer a meticulous description of what Aaron and his remaining sons, the priests/cohanim, did to minister to the Israelites on Yom Kippur.
Why is this? I suspect that Torah is reminding us that while we must grieve our losses (and our tradition gives us a very elaborate structure for doing just this), in the end, the ultimate response to catastrophe is to return to life, to reaffirm our commitment to the living by tending to the ordinary details that can provide a surprising measure of both comfort and meaning. Judaism could have died with Nadav and Avihu: Aaron and his family might have easily refused to ever enter the Tent of Meeting again and thereby destroyed the ritual at the community’s core. But they didn’t. They wept and mourned—and then returned to the Divine Service, to the sacred task of tending to the Jewish people and their needs.
How fitting, then, that we read this portion this Shabbat, just two days after Yom HaShoah, our Holocaust memorial day. We recall the immeasurable tragedy that destroyed so many of our people just seventy years ago. We remember. And then we get back to the business of healing our community through the timeless Jewish deeds of learning Torah, of spiritual service, and of performing acts of loving kindness. Next week we will celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut—Israel Independence Day—and then read portion Kedoshim, which means, “holiness.” After the death—remembrance, and then rebuilding our Jewish state, our Jewish souls, all the while striving for holiness.