Monday, April 7, 2014

Choose Life Itself!

Acharei Mot (Shabbat Hagadol)Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30
12 Nisan 5774 / April 11-12, 2014

Choose Life Itself!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

This portion is named Acharei Mot, meaning After Death, and it takes us back to, “the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.” (Vayikra, 16:1). God teaches the children of Israel the proper way in which the High Priest, Aaron at the time, can draw close to the Lord without dying. The ritual is complex, with specific vestments, time frames, sacrifices, and intentions. Ultimately, for the Judaism of today, the ritual presented in this portion becomes the basis for our Yom Kippur service. We no longer carry out the specific ritual mentioned, though we draw from the reverence and responsibility that was given to the High Priest’s actions on that specific day.

As I reflect on this, the name of this portion, After Death, rings out to me. Our (mystical) tradition has a lot to say about what happens after we die - heaven & hell (gehenom), reincarnated souls, the Messianic world to come - but the Torah itself is generally silent about this (post) existential topic. Is there some teaching here for us about after we die? Is there a connection with the Yom Kippur ritual? And, since Pesach is right around the corner, how does this teaching connect to the themes of liberation?

There are similarities between the process of dying and the Yom Kippur ritual described in this portion. The process of the Priest washing his body and dressing in white linen clothing. And the fact that Aaron must carry out this ritual all by himself - a reminder that ultimately we are responsible for our own lives and that we die alone. This is a trepidatious moment in the text and in our lives, though the text continues. Aaron steps behind the veil of the sanctuary, perhaps a metaphor for stepping behind the veil of the life. What does Aaron do in the sanctuary? He performs his greatest act of service. He atones for the entire community of Israel, wiping clean any shortcomings that may have become evident over the course of the year. It is as if Aaron is given the power to turn back time, returning the Israelites to a state of absolute purity.       

Looking at Aaron’s journey on Yom Kippur as a metaphor for after death, I get to ask the question, What if? What if the Torah is hinting to us that our work in the world does not end with our physical bodies? What if the work we do when we are alive is nothing in comparison to the impact we have after we die? I think about Martin Luther King Jr., Hannah Senesh, Rosa Parks, Abraham Joshua Heschel. People whose legacies last beyond a single lifetime. It greatly mattered who these people were in their lives, and the work they did daily, because they created the possibility to continue to transform the world without their physical presence. Similarly, Aaron’s crucial daily role in the community as the High Priest, enabled him to have such tremendous influence beyond the veil on Yom Kippur.

Today the Torah is reminding me that being alive is about setting the stage for how I influence and inspire others in this lifetime and beyond this lifetime.  Perhaps it is not so important to understand what happens to my individual consciousness when I die, but it is important to consider how my life will continue to impact the world even after I die. The Torah teaches me that I cannot separate living for today from today’s influence on eternity.
How does this connect with Pesach and the theme of liberation? Freedom is manifested in our choice to be responsible for the lives that we live. If everyone was free to just do whatever they wanted, there would be no room for actual freedom. Considering the after death teaching of Yom Kippur - that I live with the intention of impacting the world beyond my individual life - creates a greater sense of freedom. I am not bound by my physical body in terms of my service and purpose of being alive. My essence is not narrowly constricted between one breath to the next.  Also, there is ultimate freedom in being able to choose an infinite amount of responsibility to life itself, rather than one life, or even to several generations of life. Considering the choice to be responsible to life itself creates a clear sense of freedom for me. How about for  you?  


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