Parshat Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30
On the day that Aharon HaKohen —Aaron the High Priest — was to celebrate the ascension of himself and his family to the priesthood, he suffered what was perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life. His two oldest sons did something wrong. The Torah cloaks the situation in mystery and ambiguity, simply telling us that they “brought close a foreign fire in front of God.” Whatever it was that they did, God judged it to be severe enough to warrant an immediate punishment of death.
At the time, Moshe Rabbeinu tried to console Aharon and tried to help him make sense of it. But Aharon was silent, for he knew that God loves us but that we can’t understand God’s judgment. We can only deal with it based on whatever God chooses to share with us and allows us to process through our limited scope of understanding.
Now was the time of Acharei Mot — the aftermath of the tragedy. It was the time to begin to pick up the pieces and move forward, to move on. Hashem sent Moshe to Aharon with instructions and a message. Hashem directed Moshe, in his role as leader, and teacher and judge, to instruct Aharon in the discipline of the burden of operating in close quarters with God and in His holy environment. There are places one must not go without being invited. There are protocols of which to be mindful when entering certain areas. There are specifications and disciplines to the service that must followed. When done properly, they will be vehicles of peace, forgiveness and reconnecting with God. When done improperly, they would invite disaster and further judgment. The clear implication being that mistakes were already made by Aharon’s sons and these instructions were to guide Aharon and ensure that it would not happen again. Not so easy for anyone to deal with, especially so a grieving father.
Moshe, the leader, teacher and judge, was tasked by God with instructing the newly minted priestly family, his own family, with these guidelines. Yet, the Torah does not use the regular form: “Speak to Aharon and say to him.” God says to Moshe: “Speak to your brother, Aharon.” Even though Moshe had a task to do, even though Moshe had to unambiguously lay down and instruct the law, God reminded him that Moshe needed, at that moment, to be a brother first. Not to change a word or to change a law, but to speak as a brother, in a brotherly tone, with a brotherly look and touch. The law was immutable and would not change, but the frame in which it would be presented should be one that speaks of love, family and support.
This is an important lesson that, I feel, God wants us to learn. The Jewish people find themselves in the aftermath of great triumph and great tragedy. As we move forward, we need to make sure that we deal with each other as brothers, as family, even if there are things we need to debate, discuss, direct and teach each other. How we say what we say is as important as what we actually say. And if we will always remember that we are a family, that we need to support and protect each other, then we will find a way to come into God’s holy place and manage the responsibility and the imperative of holiness, which is God’s charge to us.
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman is spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation and president of the Gesher HaChaim Jewish Burial Society. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.