D'var Torah for Parashat Acharei Mot

Parashat Acharei Mot is a difficult parashah to read - extensively legalistic, it is the part of the Torah that outlines one of the many prohibitions we find immoral today: the prohibition of man lying with man. And the Haftarah from Ezekiel which accompanies it portrays the prophet relaying God’s displeasure with Israel, which has fallen into sin, and outlines God’s proposed methods for cleansing his holy city Jerusalem: diaspora and the burning of its inhabitants.

On the Shabbat before Yom HaShoah, one might be inclined to take these readings from the Tanakh and use them to support one of two themes:

1.   One might choose this opportunity to disavow our Torah texts of their homophobia, pointing to the fate suffered by so-called “sexual deviants” – the LGBT community – at the hands of the Nazis. Of course, that’s a given. We know, in liberal Jewish contexts, that our Torah was a product of its times, and there is much in it that is immoral. Moreover, we have already and will continue to recognize these problematic passages and disavow them, in word and action.

2.   Or, one might choose this opportunity to delve into the whole field of post-Holocaust theology, with all of its, let’s say, lack of subtlety – if theologians weren’t disavowing God, they were likely pointing to the culpability of the Jews themselves for bringing it on by losing sight of the mitzvot. Of course, I am simplifying, but I think you follow my point: Ezekiel would lend himself well as a prooftext for the latter metaphysical explanation of the Shoah.

But I’m sure most of you know by now, neither of these approaches are really my style.

Let’s begin with the text itself: Parashat Acharei Mot starts by looking back. Taking an (albeit extraordinarily brief) break from handing down the law, we start with a moment of memory - “Va’yedaber adonai el Moshe acharei mot sh’nei b’nei Aharon be’kirbatem lifnei adonai v’yameto” – “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord, and died.” We are transported back to the parashah we read at the beginning of April: Parashat Shemini. As you may recall, in this parashah, Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu are smitten by God after offering an “alien fire” – an “esh zara” – in their sacrifice. What is especially strange is that God forbids Moses, Aaron, and his surviving sons from mourning but commands the rest of the community to do so.

So, in Parashat Acharei Mot, we are referred to this death – to Aaron’s personal tragedy – and then we return to the giving of the laws. These laws, though, are mostly not laws that bind the community. They are the body of laws that govern the priestly class – Aaron and his descendants, the Kohanim, ostensibly to help prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future. Follow these rules and avoid being smitten by God for similar offences. We learn about the appropriate attire for entering the holy place, and the appropriate method for offering a sacrifice to God within it.

I was beginning to think that perhaps I had made a mistake by attempting to link this parashah to the Shoah. So, I did what anyone would do in this situation – see if anyone else had done it. I turned to Google. Let’s just say there was a lot of less than interesting commentary. But then, I found something by Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in the Huffington Post:

“What does God order Israel and its priests to do in the wake of the tragic loss of Aarons two sons by fire at the altar? Acharei Mot begins with details of the way the community ritually set itself right with God and one another, and then sets forth other provisions of the symbolic sacred order of pure and impure that is meant to point the way toward ethical sacred order of Right and Wrong in individual and public life. Just before a list of transgressions in the sexual realm, Moses provides the rationale for all the commandments that come in the wake of ‘the death.’ The point is life. ‘You shall keep my laws and my statutes, by the pursuit of which a person shall live. I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 18:5).

“I, like many commentators over the centuries, read these words not as threat (do this or you will die), but as promise, invitation, possibility. Act rightly, seek holiness and you shall experience a life of meaning, profundity, joy; what we might call Life with a capital L. Torah is meant to be a ‘tree of Life, for those who hold fast to it.’

“God creates the world in love, according to Jewish teaching – creates human beings in love, pronounces the creation of world and humanity ‘very good,’ and enters into covenant with human beings as a whole, and with the Children of Israel in particular, to better fulfill the intention of making Gods creation and Gods creatures ‘very good.’ We are here to make the world more just, more compassionate, more loving.

“This is harder to do after personal or collective tragedy. Experience or witness of suffering or evil calls the meaning of things into question and may lead one to doubt not only Gods existence or providence but the very possibility of virtue. Jews and Christians should band together despite their differences, Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, because we face the common threat of nihilism, chaos, belief in nothing – a danger that far outweighs any theological disagreement between the two religions. The conviction of meaning, Heschel wrote, comes most readily when we act as Gods partners, joining God in doing the deeds God wants done.”

If we can excuse the supernaturalist understanding of God, I think the point holds, and it certainly is true of the Darchei Noam community that I have come to know over these past four years: as an intentional community, grounded in our Jewish values and a connection to the Jewish past, Darchei Noam and its members strive to make the world more just, more compassionate, and more loving.

On this Shabbat, where we will mark Yom HaShoah with an extra recital of the Mourners’ Kaddish and a special program after Kiddush featuring two forms of Holocaust memory: a performance of music in four languages, composed during the Holocaust and somehow almost miraculously passed down to us, and a talk from Canada’s foremost contemporary Holocaust scholar on Jewish community councils and memory of the Holocaust, I would like to take a moment to connect the moral teaching that Eisen draws out of Acharei Mot to our relationship to the Shoah today.

Acharei Mot: after the death. We know the, excuse my hyperbole, panic in the Jewish community about how we will preserve the memory of the Holocaust after there are no more survivors. With each Yom HaShoah, that day draws closer. Valiant efforts to record testimonies are underway at most of the major Holocaust museums in the world, and educator and museological conferences are held on the topic of teaching the Holocaust without survivors. At the same time, technology is providing never before possible ways to preserve and transmit the historical record, and the community is pouring considerable resources into these new ways to preserve and share our history.

As someone who has avidly consumed Holocaust stories for as long as I can remember, I have to say I’m far less panicked. I think of the profound cultural output of Jews of my generation in the areas of film, art, and especially literature. I think of books like Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love that tells a unique Holocaust story through the eyes of three characters: a survivor, a translator, and the protagonist of the story, a tween girl named Alma Singer. Three stories are woven together, with Alma as the glue. We meet Leopold Gursky, an elderly man living alone with no family and only one friend, afraid to die and go unnoticed. We meet Alma's mother, Charlotte Singer, a woman grieving her beloved husband who had died a few years prior, who was pouring herself into translating a novel, The History of Love. And we meet the novel, The History of Love, whose unlikely arrival in New York and into the lives of the characters of the book comes to demonstrate the amazing, and unlikely, potential of memory and testimony.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that at the end of this book, Leo Gursky and Alma Singer finally meet. We see Leo Gursky through the eyes of young Alma Singer:

“The old man and I were the only ones left. I got up to leave. I was disappointed. I don’t know what I’d hoped for. I started to leave. I passed the old man. There was a card safety-pinned to his chest. It said: MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.”

Gursky, a survivor, is alone – no family, no friends. But here, a young woman is seeking him out after discovering his legacy – the book he wrote that he thought had been lost.

We hear from Leo Gursky:

“It seemed impossible.

And yet.

What if the things I believed were possible were really impossible, and the things I believed were impossible were really not?

For example.

What if the girl sitting next to me on this bench was real?

What if she was named Alma, after my Alma?

What if my book hadn’t been lost in a flood at all?

What if –”

I think that we are, as a community, in this state of “What if?” In this state of the impossible becoming possible, and the possible becoming impossible.

What if, acharei mot, the next generations continue to tell the story? What if, acharei mot, Holocaust memory continues to provide a fertile ground for artistic creation and experimentation? What if, acharei mot, the technologies we have provide endless opportunities to successfully disseminate testimonies and historical records beyond what we could have ever done in the past? What if, acharei mot, we take hold of the possibilities to reinvent the ways in which we teach and share our community’s tragedy – both through preservation transmission of the historical record, and through, as Eisen puts it, making the world more just, more compassionate, more loving.

We live this mission when we remember and when we share our story, and when we use our memory of our own history – our own collective trauma –to inspire us to good in the world: whether it is to stand against poverty and operate social programs like Out of the Cold; or build affordable housing; or whether it is to come together as a community to sponsor a family of refugees from a world that couldn’t be more different than ours like we did for the Khello family this past year. This, to me, is the future of Holocaust memory – acharei mot.

Shabbat shalom, and for those of you observing an eighth day of Passover, chag kasher v’sameach.

This D'var Torah was delivered at Congregation Darchei Noam on Saturday, April 30, 2016.