Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Acharei Mot (Rise)



What do you do in the aftermath of tragedy and disaster? 

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, who are scorched by fire in the prime of their lives when they bring an unusual offering before God.  This episode, described in portion Shemini a few weeks ago, is one of the most heartrending and inexplicable in the Torah.  Generations of commentators have made copious efforts to explain it, but none suffice; in the end, we are left with Aaron’s stunned silence and raw grief.

Acharei Mot returns us to that horrific scene—or, more precisely, to its aftermath.  What does it describe in the wake of the tragedy?  Not—as one might expect—details of a funeral or 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?  The excruciating pain of a tragic death never goes away; instead, it leaves the mourners’ lives forever changed.  Still, Torah teaches, in the end, the survivors must somehow find a way to return to daily life, tending to the ordinary details that somehow get them through the day.  Judaism could have died with Nadav and Avihu: Aaron and his family might have easily refused to ever again enter the Tent of Meeting and thereby destroyed the ritual at the community’s core.  But they didn’t.  They mourned—and then, though undoubtedly still grieving deeply, again took up the Divine Service, ministering to the Jewish people and their needs.  Perhaps this even brought them a modicum of comfort.

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Eddie Vedder offers a beautifully understated response to tragedy in his short, simple, and poignant song, “Rise,” from the film “Into the Wild.”  He performs solo, with just his voice and a persistent, undeniable mandolin riff that drives the whole thing forward, full of emotion, love and loss:

Such is the way of the world
You can never know
Just where to put all your faith
And how will it grow

Gonna rise up
Burning black holes in dark memories
Gonna rise up
Turning mistakes into gold


Such is the passage of time
Too fast to fold
Suddenly swallowed by signs
Lo and behold

Gonna rise up
Find my direction magnetically
Gonna rise up
Throw down my ace in the hole

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Despite everything, we rise up. 

It is fitting—and, perhaps, not coincidental—that we read this portion this Shabbat, just two days after Yom HaShoah, our Holocaust Memorial Day.  We recall the immeasurable calamity 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 read portion Kedoshim, which means, “holiness.”  After the death—remembrance, and then reaching, again, for holiness.

For a live performance of “Rise”: