After a death … you shall strive to be holy
Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1-20:27
I am certain that you have asked the question and that you have heard the question just as I have, “How will I go on after she/he dies?”
It is among the most challenging parts of being a human in love with others. A large part of our own world appears to come to an end as the life of another comes to an end. At that moment, we see no way out of the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, despite the very real despair we may feel, there is often a very deep resilience that bubbles up from within. Yes, we can live on beyond the death of a loved one.
The very name of this week’s double Torah portion, acharei mot … kedoshim, “After a death … you shall strive to be holy,” can serve us as a spiritual metaphor of our ability to move beyond despair toward holy living.
It was a horrific scene just two weeks ago in “Torah time.” As Aaron celebrated a highlight of his career, being ordained as High Priest of Israel, his sons, Nadav and Avihu, met their untimely death after offering an unauthorized fire. When Moses tried to comfort his brother, Aaron, Aaron was dumbfounded into silence. I can only imagine the thoughts racing through his mind: “Why didn’t I pay attention to them? Why didn’t I teach them better? Why did this happen to us? Why? Why? Why?”
This week’s first Torah portion provides Aaron with the structure he needed to make his way through the pain: “Adonai spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons, ‘Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark. … Thus only shall Aaron enter the shrine, with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban.”
Perhaps this sacred regiment served as a shiva of its own sort for Aaron — the ritual, the simple clothing, the solitude, the sacred thoughts.
And then, in our own lives, when the shiva is over and the candle has burned down, when we get up and walk around the block and put away the stools and the siddurim, when we take off the black ribbon and go back to work and life, we have the ability to strive for something new in our lives. After all, the second portion we read this week commands us to be holy.
Perhaps it is just that simple. After the death of a loved one, you shall strive to be holy. It is a mandate to get back to the collective work of living life. Barbara once taught me through a sermon at Temple David that no matter how dark “the valley of the shadow of death” might be, as we walk through it we will see the light of “I lift up my eyes to the mountains. … My help comes from Adonai.”
How true it is.
This is our sacred mandate. The next time you walk through that valley, know that there is light at the end, because after death there is holiness.
Rabbi Ron Symons is the director of Lifelong Learning and the Tikkun Olam Center for Jewish Social Justice at Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.