Parashat Aharei Mot 5782

April 29, 2022 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, Uncategorized, Vayikra

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Aharei Mot
By Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06)

In an instantly-classic scene from Fiddler, Tevye the dairyman comes to an agreement to marry off his daughter Tzeitl to the butcher Lazar Wolf. The two men celebrate by singing the rousing anthem L’Hayim — “To Life!” The lyrics report that:

Life has a way of confusing us,
Blessing and bruising us.
Drink, l’chaim, to life!

This modern Jewish sacred text reflects an elemental hasidishe teaching — namely, that that even when the material conditions of existence are meager, we raise up the sparks of holiness that surround us. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, we can lift a glass of shnapps “to life.”

The toast l’hayim stretches much farther back than Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics, of course, no matter how much we revere them. Some scholars trace the custom all the way back to Talmudic times, as illustrated in this text from tractate Shabbat:

Rabbi Akiva … made a banquet for his son, and over each and every cup he brought he said: Wine and life to the mouth of the Sages! Wine and life to the mouth of the Sages and to the mouth of their students! (Bavli Shabbat 67b)

As the text illustrates, the celebration of life is not only appropriate in difficult times, but in joyous times as well.

The Jewish teaching regarding the preciousness of life appears in this week’s Torah portion, Aharei Mot. “Keep My laws and My judgements,” God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites, “that humanity shall do them and live by them” (Lev. 18:5).

Numerous commentators read the injunction not just to keep God’s teachings, but to “live by them,” as representing a principle that the performance of mitzvot should not cost us our lives. “Live by them,” we learn both in tractate Yoma and tractate Sanhedrin, means “not die by them” (Yoma 85bSanhedrin 74a). The violation of mitzvot is, in fact, commanded in the vast majority of cases in which human life is endangered, based on this Talmudic teaching. Thus, in a case where “a person is dangerously sick on the Sabbath and a remedy must be prepared,” 18th Century Turkish Rabbi Yitzchak Magriso teaches in the Sephardi commentary, Me’am Lo’ez, “the Torah does not want us to keep the sabbath and allow the patient to die.” Rather, he continues, “on the contrary — the commitment is to violate the Sabbath so the person will survive!”

That the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, saving life, takes precedence over other mitzvot may seem obvious to those of us who know a little something about Jewish teaching. But a cursory look at the land where we live shows that it is far from obvious. Few public leaders of any party seem particularly troubled that Covid-19 deaths in the United States are approaching the one-million mark. Mass shootings, which once shocked the conscience, now barely mention a headline. Deaths of immigrants in detention sometimes don’t achieve even that — this, of course, in a country in which citizens regularly die of hunger and neglect. In such a land, it’s clear that we’ve lost our way, and that Leviticus has much to teach us.

But there is another facet to God’s insistence that we should “live by” the mitzvot, a teaching less about social justice and more about soul and spirit. Read with this spiritual lens, we see a text that teaches us to find vitality in the performance of mitzvot. This teaching is particularly salient, especially, at a time when some have become witheringly exacting in their adherence to ritual mitzvot.

Back in the early 19th century, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was already warning of the dangers of such exactitude. In an audacious reinterpretation of the Talmudic texts, the rebbe writes that the injunction to live through mitzvah and not to die by them concerns not physical life, but “those who are exacting and unnecessarily strict” in the performance of mitzvot. As a result of “their exactitude and depression, they have no vitality [hiyut] from any mitzvah.” But Rebbe Nachman’s audacity goes further — one who performs mitzvot in a spirit of such joyless and brittle compulsion “fails to meet their religious duties” (Likutei Moharan II 44:5). It is as if mitzvot performed in such a way are not mitzvot.

The solution to the bleak approach to Jewish observance rejected by Rebbe Nachman is beautifully articulated by one of his contemporaries, Chaim of Volozhin, in his master work, Nefesh HaHayim. Chaim looks at the Hebrew words in our parashahhai bahem, and translates them not as “live by them,” but rather as “live within them.” When performing a mitzvah with intention, Chaim teaches that a person is “surrounded and clothed, that moment, in holiness.” Rather than enervating drudgery, the Nefesh HaHayim invites us to see the performance of mitzvot as a moment in which we are “surrounded then with the holiness of the mitzvah” — and, moreover, “encompassed by the atmosphere of the Garden of Eden.”

The irony of our lives now is that, while most of us are much more materially comfortable than Tevye the dairyman, we do not necessarily feel that our existence is any more purposeful or consequential. The blessing of the teaching to live by our mitzvot is that it gives us meaning and purpose, no matter how we read the text. If we see it as a mandate to protect life, our nation sets before us a landscape rich with opportunity. We can find meaning in fighting for the expansion of affordable healthcare, greater investment in public health, legal protections for workers laboring under dangerous conditions. If we read the text as does the Nefesh HaHayim, we can reject the cynicism and despair of our times by enrobing ourselves in the holiness of Yiddishkeit. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping us from pursuing both paths.
Sheldon Harnick was right of course. Life does, indeed, have a way of confusing us. And yet, what a gift to be part of a people whose wisdom acknowledges that confusion, and confronts it, offering up pathways to purpose that enrich us and, ultimately, enliven us.
Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06) is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Mass. He serves on the advisory boards of the Jewish Alliance of Law and Social Action (JALSA) and the New England Jewish Labor Committee, and is a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He lives in Acton with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell.