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Achrei Mot 2022

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

Our portion this week is Achrei Mot, meaning after the death of. It refers to the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, who died while offering a “strange” or unwanted fire to God. While our portion refers to those two deaths, I’d like to suggest that death, quite sadly, is all around us. Over 990,000 people in the U.S. have died in the last two years due to COVID. Worldwide, that number is 6.23 million. While COVID has certainly slowed down, it has not gone away, and public health experts expect the number of deaths in the U.S. to exceed 1 million within the next ten months.

Of course, COVID is not the only cause of death around us. Disease isn’t the only cause of death around us. War is a great contributor – and our world currently is at war in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, and far too many other nations.

In our portion, we might expect to see God or Moses or Miriam offer comfort to Aaron after his sons die. But that’s not what happens. Instead, Aaron is told to bring certain offerings – sin offerings, on behalf of himself and his family. Quickly, the portion turns to Yom Kippur and Azazel, the scapegoat who takes our sins on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, as I like to remind us, is the day we mimic our own death.

The author Abigail Pogrebin, who wrote My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, recently authored an article on Yom Kippur entitled, “Death and More Death: Preparation for Yom Kippur.” Here’s are some excerpts:

Yom Kippur is all about death? I thought it was about atonement. Yet all you have to do is start talking to rabbis – or reading their books about preparing for the High Holidays – and death takes center stage.

I don’t mean death in the sense of a morbid fixation, or ominous organs. It’s death in the sense of a laser focus on life – its fragility, its evanescence – which forces us to really ask ourselves, at any age: Whom do I want to be in the time I have left?

In a book by the late Rabbi Alan Lew, he goads us to do a rigorous self-inventory. The book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, is intense but motivating. He urges us to see how high the stakes are:

The Book of Life and the Book of Death are opened once again, and your name is written in one of them. But you don’t know which one. The ten days that follow are fraught with meaning and dread…. [And then on Yom Kippur], you rehearse your own death. You wear … white, to conjure the burial garment, and, like a dead person, you neither eat nor drink …. You summon the desperate strength of life’s last moments…. A fist beats against the wall of your heart relentlessly, until you are brokenhearted and confess to your great crime. You are a human being, guilty of every crime imaginable…. Then a chill grips you. The gate between heaven and earth has suddenly begun to close…. This is your last chance. Everyone has run out of time. Every heart has broken. The gate clangs shut, the great horn sounds one last time.”

[This is] intense. But it also snaps me to attention. In past years, I’ve gone to synagogue on Yom Kippur, thinking: ‘This is enough. I’m here. I’m listening. I’m reciting. I’m starving.” But Lew grabs me, shakes me and says: “That’s bush-league. You have to work much, much harder.”

“STOP. EVERYTHING. NOW,” Rabbi Sharon Brous wrote even more bluntly in her Yom Kippur sermon last year. “Stop everything right now. And ask yourself: Who am I? Is this who you want to be in the world? I know how busy we all are…. But High Holy Days come and say: ‘Hit pause. This is the only life that you are given…. If your narrative is choking you, or even just inhibiting you, do something about it.’”

Pogrebin writes, “I get that mortality spurs atonement: If we think we might die, we set different priorities. What I don’t cotton to is the notion – suggested by the Unetanetokef prayer especially – that God will write us out of the Book of Life if we don’t pray enough, repent enough or give enough.”

British Reform Rabbi Tony Bayfield agrees. “I find that promise loathsome,” he writes in Larry Hoffman’s compilation, “Who by Fire, Who by Water.” “God has decided who will live and who will die – and how they will die as well. I may be scheduled for terminal cancer next November, and you may be scheduled for a car crash two weeks later…. Do the right thing before the final gavel falls and neither the cancer nor the car crash will occur…. All of my experience tells me that life doesn’t work like that.”

But I hold out hope that it does. Crazy as that may seem, I do believe that good deeds, effortful prayer and hardcore penitence will make a difference in my fate. Which doesn’t mean that I go to services out of fear, only that the fear focuses me.

I asked Rabbi Shai Held, a deft teacher and co-founder of Mechon Hadar, an independent learning institute in Manhattan that welcomes the novice, about the Yom Kippur leitmotif of the clock running out.

“I think it’s hard – to the point of being impossible to do what rabbis often say in High Holy sermons: ‘We should live all the time with the realization that we might be killed in an hour.’ You know what? I’ll speak for myself: I would never get out of bed again. I mean that seriously. And by the way, if I thought that way about my children? I would lock my son and daughter in my apartment, and they would never go outside again. But, if we ignore that idea all the time, we do so at our own peril. And in some ways, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about that: At least sometimes, we have to stop and realize: You might not live until tonight. And what happens then? That’s the tension, right? You can’t live like that all the time. But you’ve got to live like that some of the time.”

Before we get too maudlin, the rabbis tell us there’s a happy coda: Death ends in rebirth. “At the end of the holiday,” writes Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, “with the sounding of the shofar, we are considered reborn.”

“Jews re-enact their own death,” Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes, “only to be restored to life in the resolution of the day.” He says the theme of rebirth and cleansing is sometimes re-enacted before the holidays by immersing one’s self in the mikveh – the ritual bath. “The removal of ritual impurity is a symbolic statement of removing the stain of sin (death).”

Pogrebin decided to immerse in a mikveh. She writes that she “careened between detachment and profound release.” She continues: I felt childlike in the water, but also self-conscious. I felt moved by the murmured blessings, but also unable to hear all of them with water in my ears. I was hit hard by the corporal symbolism of a fresh start, but aware that, when it comes to the toil of atonement, this was a drop in the proverbial bucket. (Or bath.) I felt recharged, but not quite reborn.

Yom Kippur comes but once a year. Our portion this week reminds us that repentance should be a much more common occurrence than that. Shabbat shalom.

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784