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Acahrei Mot

04/30/2019 10:30:53 AM

Apr30

This week we read Parshat Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1 to 18:30. The Parshah opens with a description of the service of the high priest in purifying the sanctuary and atoning for the people of Israel on the holiest of days - The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

The preface to the description of this sacred service does not designate it at all as connected with a holiday or particular time of year. Rather it is connected to the death of Aaron’s two sons (see Leviticus 10) - two young men at the peak of their lives, who were struck down for unclear reasons at the moment of the dedication of the temple. Aaron was not allowed to mourn them, but the Torah suggests that the purification and atonement service was something that was equally appropriate on the the occasion of their death as it was on the day of Atonement. 

The juxtaposition between this tragic death of two young men that shook the nation and the Day of Atonement prompts the Jerusalem Talmud (yoma 1:5) to state, This is to teach you, that just as Yom Kippur atones so the death of the righteous atones. 

What is meant by such a theologically problematic statement? What is meant by atonement and how can a death atone for us? 

To answer these questions we must re-examine the nature of atonement. A moment of atonement is a moment of reflection. It is a moment in which we must re-examine our entire world. Like mourning, it is a moment when our world is turned upside down and we must recreate it from the shards of meaning that are left to us. 

If things are examined this way the meaning of the Talmud’s statement is that certain events allow us to create a moment of atonement. Yom Kippur can be this way, but certainly great personal and national tragedies are this way. The Talmud is teaching us something about the significance of these moments of reflection. 

This week we experienced a tragedy for our people in the Poway shooting. We also commemorate six months to the day from the Pittsburgh shooting at Etz Hayyim. We also designate Yom Hashoah as a day of remembrance for the Holocaust. 

These days do not have a simple logic or clear theological message to them, but they are moments of reflection. As Jews we make days like these sacred by acts of remembering and prayer, which allow us to enter into reflection. And by designating these days we are able to create new meaning in our own lives. Ultimately we cannot remain in mourning. Atonement is our struggle to create new life from death, and to openly cry out, Am Yisroel Chay, the Jewish people lives! 

Sat, September 21 2019 21 Elul 5779