The poet Dylan Thomas writes, "After the first death, there is no other."
Which death counts as the first? Genesis 5:5 reads, "All the days that Adam lived came to 930 years, then he died." Certainly our existence as humans has been forever altered and shaped by our own mortality.
And yet I think Thomas is describing something much more intimate than even our own death. He points to the reality that our first experience of death, as in our first personal and significant loss, is a threshold that cannot be undone.
In this week's parsha, we read of the death of two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu. Upon hearing of these deaths, in a moment of remarkable biblical brevity, the Torah reads, "וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן׃ / Aaron was still." In the stillness, I hear the words of the poet Dylan Thomas, "After the first death, there is no other."
The stillness of this moment invites infinite commentary. Was he in shock? Was he at peace? Did he accept the Divine verdict? Did he weep? Did he wail? Did he sit in silence?
Yes, yes to all of it. Death is a kaleidoscope of emotions that flood our entire being beyond words and reason.
Not a week goes by that a member of our community does not lose a loved one. After the first death, death is ever-present. An elder, a sibling, a student. Some of our losses are more public than others. This week alone I have written four condolence cards.
One of the most challenging parts of my role as a rabbi has been unlearning my own fear of death. I remember driving away from a funeral for a KT member weeping. I pulled over and called a colleague, "You mean to tell me I am supposed to fall in love with each of these people and then bury them?!" They listened as I cried. And Aaron was still. After the first death, there is no other.
The Torah is full of detailed accounts of our ancestors' deaths. Jacob and Joseph. Miriam and Moses. From each of these stories we have learned how to grieve, as people and as a people.
As a congregational rabbi, I am constantly reminded by members of our community, what a gift Jewish mourning rituals are. How supportive it is to have rote actions and daily routines when one is immersed in grief.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.