This Shabbat, we are excited to welcome Naomi Less into our community as a guest of the Alan J Malinger Rock Shabbat program. My dad died over 4 1/2 years ago. To say his death has had a profound effect on my life would be an unspeakable understatement. I miss him but I am grateful for all of the blessings who shared with me.
In a stunning moment recently, as we continue to kvell over Aly’s engagment, I am sensing my father’s presence in many ways. Mostly, I feel him acting through the caring, nurturing, loving presence of others. My sense is that he has sent these human angels to care for me, to care for our family. For the first time since his death, I have found myself feeling safe in a way that is hard to articulate.
For me, the curious part about feeling my dad this strongly is that I have never believed that the dead act in our lives in these ways. And so, while I might not believe it is happening, I feel it is. A teacher of mine recently told me to stop overthinking this gift from the Universe. “Just receive it with gratitude,” he told me, gently. And so I am.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47), Moses’ brother, the High Priest, Aaron, witnesses an unfathomable tragedy — the death of his sons. After his boys, Nadav and Abihu, clutching their incense pans, bring alien fire to the altar, a divine fire consumes them as their father and uncle look on. I have always been intrigued by the stunned silence in the text as we read of this matter-of-fact account of this sudden, violent and seemingly nonsensical death. I long to scoop up Aaron in my arms, to hold him, to be present with him. I can’t imagine reacting in any other way.
Oddly, Aaron’s brother Moses responds coldly, with words I always have read as either a theological chastisement or platitude (depending on how generous I’m feeling): “This is what the Eternal meant when saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people” (10:3). Aaron hears these words and is silent.
When I reread the portion this week, what I expected was to feel frustration with Moses’ lack of empathy. And yet, distance and time are funny things. More life experiences and gathering to remember loved ones, Moses’ words seem less horrible and more poignant: “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.”
In this statement, I always have assumed Moses was trying to tell Aaron that God was somehow illustrating the sacred in his boys’ death. But maybe Moses wasn’t talking about God’s act of divine fire in his words, after all. Maybe Moses actually was foreshadowing the seconds and minutes and years to come for Aaron. Maybe Moses knew that I would not be alone in my impulse to rush to Aaron’s side. Maybe Moses knew the community would gather around this grieving family.
“Through those near to Me I show Myself holy.” Maybe Moses knew, despite some strange commandments about not grieving publicly, that Aaron would be comforted in whispers and actions and the loving presence of others. Maybe, much as I have begun to feel my father’s hand in my own life through the actions of others, Moses suspected that Aaron would feel generations acting upon him, as well. “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy.” Maybe Moses was saying to Aaron: You will feel the love of your community envelope you. You will feel holiness, if not wholeness, again. You will feel a sacred presence in your life through the kind actions of others.
During a recent conversation I had with a Hebrew High student, as one described what it means to them to be an atheist, I couldn’t help but lean forward intently. “But what about the Mystery?” I asked, “What about the Why of the universe? The Interconnectivity?”
“I don’t feel it,” was the reply. If I am being honest, there have been times in my life when I have not have felt the Mystery, either. There have been times when I have read words of truth as words of admonishment. There have been times when a divine gift has felt hard to receive. This week, I’m not going to overthink it, though. This week, I will endeavor to hold onto the Aarons around me, trust the truth of Moses’ explanation, and express gratitude for what I have. This week, I will try just to accept.