Thursday, April 10, 2014

In Service: After Mourning and the Torah Portion of Acharei Mot

B"H

In this week's Torah portion, we switch from speaking about Tzara'at and return briefly to the subject of the death of Aharon's two eldest sons. The Torah portion then describes the service of Aharon, the High Priest, on Yom Kippur, and later discusses other laws purity.

As mentioned previously, Tzara'at and death have a lot in common. Both represent transitions, and the Metzorah himself is considered like someone who is "dead." We also spoke about how a mother who has just given birth is also in the midst of a great transition, and perhaps that is why her condition is discussed along with Tzara'at and she becomes impure for an extended amount of time. Another person in the midst of a transition is a mourner.


1And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron's two sons, when they drew near before the Lord, and they died.א. וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל משֶׁה אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה וַיָּמֻתוּ:
And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons:What does this teach us [when it specifies “after the death of Aaron’s two sons”]? Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah illustrated [the answer] with a parable of a patient, whom a physician came to visit. [The physician] said to him, “Do not eat cold foods, and do not lie down in a cold, damp place.” Then, another [physician] visited him, and advised him, “Do not eat cold foods or lie down in a cold, damp place, so that you will not die the way so-and-so died.” This one warned that patient more effectively than the former. Therefore, Scripture says, “after the death of Aaron’s two sons” [i.e., God effectively said to Aaron, “Do not enter the Holy in a prohibited manner, so that you will not die as your sons died”]- [Torath Kohanim 16:3]וידבר ה' אל משה אחרי מות שני בני אהרן וגו': מה תלמוד לומר, היה רבי אלעזר בן עזריה מושלו משל לחולה שנכנס אצלו רופא. אמר לו אל תאכל צונן ואל תשכב בטחב. בא אחר ואמר לו אל תאכל צונן ואל תשכב בטחב שלא תמות כדרך שמת פלוני. זה זרזו יותר מן הראשון, לכך נאמר אחרי מות שני בני אהרן:




At first glance, Rashi's comment seems primarily about the effective of Hashem's choice of words. However, comparing Aharon to a patient perhaps also has a much deeper meaning. Aharon was like a patient, someone still carrying fresh wounds of the trauma of losing his two sons. He could not even grieve properly because he was serving in the Temple and could not display acts of mourning. He was a recovering patient, and did not need a reminder of his sons' passing in order to follow G-d's commandments. What Aharon needed, first and foremost, was encouragement, moral support to fight depression and death. He needed meaning and purpose, and was therefore further told of his obligations as high priest.

Mourners are always at a risk of clinging too much to the dead and forgetting to keep living. After the set time for mourning, they must get up and get back to work. They must be told "not to eat cold foods" (continue to have thoughts of death and mourning) or "lie down in a cold damp place" (a cemetery). They must stand now, and need warmth and light. Once they are out of the transition period of mourning, they must consider themselves "purified,"  and realize that their Divine service, in the face of tragedy, is important and holy like that of the high priest himself.

Note: The statement quoted by Rashi is by Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azariah, one of the protagonists of the Passover Haggadah. He is the foremost example of how being assigned an important task can propel a person to new heights, to the point that they are physically transformed. In the Haggadah, Rabbi Eliezer states, "I am like someone aged 70." Even though he was in fact a teenager at the time, when he was appointed as Nassi he grew white hair and a white beard!



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