There are weeks when it takes effort to knit our lives to the Torah portion. And there are weeks like this one, when the ancient words feel as though they were written for this very moment. This week's parsha, Acharei Mot, literally "After death," requires no introduction. We find ourselves in both real time and mythic time in the space that follows death. In the Torah's case, after the death of Aaron's two sons. And in our case, after the death of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, z”l in Poway, California. Who was in synagogue to recite Yizkor prayers on the eighth day of Passover.
In four places the Torah mentions the death of Aaron's sons. And in each of those places it mentions the supposed cause of their death. Aaron's children died attempting to reach God. Much like Lori, they were trying to draw close to the Divine. How can we reconcile the possibility of death as a possible consequence of Jewish practice or Shabbat observance? Is that not at odds with our core understanding of Jewish tradition? As we sing on Shabbat morning, "It is a tree of life to those who draw near to it" (Proverbs 3:17).
It is a tree of life. It is meant to be sustaining and nurturing. Which is affirmed a few chapters later in this week's parsha when the text teaches that a person is meant to observe Jewish teachings וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם "and live by them." For which the Talmud clarifies, "live by them, and not die by them" וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם (B.T. Avodah Zara 27b).
It is because of this core value that the rabbis explain that one is permitted to violate a mitzvah (i.e., Shabbat) in order to save a life. It is this core value that undermines for me the homophobic reading of Leviticus 18:21, which appears only a few verses later. Because Torah and mitzvot in their essence, should be life giving. Jewish practices should animate us; give our lives meaning; renew our life-force. Judaism is meant to make us feel more alive. Any interpretation of Torah that suggests otherwise, say the rabbis, has strayed too far. Because we should live by them and not die by them.
This Shabbat embodies our resistance and our resilience. It is profound to affirm life in this moment and welcome three little ones into community and covenant. May our commitment to our traditions and our community be strengthened. And may we experience the joy, calm, and peace that Shabbat offers us. "For it is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it, all who uphold it may be be counted as fortunate. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace."
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.