Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

Parashat Aharei Mot/Kedoshim:
The Lingering Pain of Loss

By Eleanor Pearlman

The beginning of the parashah (Torah portion) of Aharei Mot/Kedoshim begins with the words, Vay’hi aharei mot (After the death) – in reference to Nadav and Avihu, two of the sons of Aaron. These deaths occurred in Parashat Shemini, three parshiot before our current parashah. The reason for their punishment is uncertain, as many varying explanations by the commentators mean there is no one reason for such a difficult death/punishment that is universally understood or accepted.

10:1 ‘. . . And they (Nadav and Avihu) offered before the Lord alien fire which He had not commanded them.
10:2 And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them.’

While, at this time, Moshe offered some words of explanation, Aaron remained silent, ‘vayidom Aharon.’ (10:3) There was nothing for Aaron to say, for there are no words to express such a horrendous and sudden loss. There is nothing worse than losing a child. And Aaron lost two sons in an instant.

The next two parshiot after Shemini, Tazria and Metzora, are about cleanliness, disease, and the purity of one’s home and person. Everett Fox explains that Parashat Shemini and Parashat Aharei Mot create brackets around the issue of pollution, the basic content of the two intervening parshiot. Perhaps, this diversion is a way to illustrate how one looks for causes, such as disease or impurity, to explain loss. If one can only bathe enough, be vigilant enough, be fastidious enough, then such a horrible death will not occur. Possibly, these two sons of Aaron were not clean or pure in some remediable way. Aaron needed to ascertain the safety of his two surviving sons who would continue to serve where their brothers were killed.

When faced with a tragedy, after the silent shock of disbelief, there is a search for an exact cause. One has to feel s/he can protect the survivors. When someone dies of lung cancer, we ask whether or not s/he smoked cigarettes. We, the nonsmokers, assure ourselves that we will never have such a punitive and painful end. If we can avoid ‘x,’ then we shall avoid tragedy. When all is said and done, one’s life continues, even after terrible loss. But after loss, time always is measured as before or after the tragedy. Thus, the name of the parashah, Aharei Mot, after the death.

Aaron continues, learns, and performs the rituals, which are his life’s work. With diligence and rectitude, he seeks kapparah, atonement, for himself, for his family, and for the entire community of Israel. He knows that he must busy himself with his duties to the rest of the community and to HaShem (God). He has nothing to say, but he does what is required of him, as do all survivors.

And then comes the next parashah, Parashat Kedoshim, with the assurance that we matter to HaShem. In our pain, we may feel separate, another meaning of kadosh. Indeed, when Moses speaks to Aaron after the deaths of Aaron’s sons, he says that God is made holy by those who come closest to God – “bikrovai ekadesh.” (Lev. 10:3) However, in our own parashah, Kedoshim, we are given ways to turn our separateness into ways of holiness by helping others in our community. For example, in chapter 19:10, we read:
‘You shall not pick your vineyard bare. . . you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.’

Just as Parashat Kedoshim is in the exact middle of the Bible, so our acts of justice and kindness and social responsibility should form the centers of our lives. And, thus, we heal.