Parashat Aharei Mot

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

Death. Why is there death in this world? Is there a meaning to death? We often ask these questions as we try to make sense of death or when we are confronted with tragedy that seems to overwhelm our sense of right and wrong. We are not alone in asking these questions.

R. Abba b. Abina enquired: For what reason was the section recording the death of Miriam placed in close proximity to that dealing with the ashes of the Red Heifer? Simply this, to teach that as the ashes of the Heifer effect atonement (mekhaper), so the death of the righteous effects atonement (mekhaperet). R. Judan asked: For what reason was the death of Aaron recorded in close proximity to the breaking of the Tables? Simply this, to teach that Aaron’s death was as grievous to the Holy One, blessed be He, as the breaking of the Tablets.

The midrash continues and asks about the deaths of the sons of Aaron that appear at the beginning of this week’s parashah:

R. Hiyya b. Abba stated: The sons of Aaron died on the first of Nisan. Why then is their death mentioned in connection with the Day of Atonement? It must be to teach that as the Day of Atonement effects atonement, so the death of the righteous effects atonement. (Leviticus Rabbah 20:12, Soncino trans.)

All of these midrashic comments attempt to make some sense of tragedy, to try and find meaning behind death and loss. A recurring theme is that the death of the righteous effects atonement. While for some this may offer comfort and give meaning, for others it may be offensive. Forget about atonement, I want my loved one to be living and breathing by my side.

The Zohar brings a teaching similar to that found in the above midrash.

“They opened again, saying, ‘Whenever the righteous depart, Judgment departs from the world, and the death of the righteous atones for the sins of the generation. Therefore we read the portion of the sons of Aaron on Yom Kippur, so that it may bring atonement for the sins of Israel. The blessed Holy One said, “Turn your attention to the death of these righteous ones, and it will be considered as if you were bringing offerings to atone for yourselves.” For we have learned: As long as the people of Israel are in exile and do not bring offerings on that day and cannot offer those two goats, they will have the memory of Aaron’s two sons and thereby gain atonement.” (Zohar, Aharei Mot 3:56b, Matt trans.)

This text from the Zohar attempts to understand the meaning of two types of losses, that of the Temple along with its sacrifices and that of the righteous. In the absence of sacrifices the deaths of the righteous atone for our sins. But it isn’t just the deaths of the righteous that atone for our sins, our memories of them also help us atone.

Another text in this same chapter of the Zohar further amplifies the role of memory in our mourning.

“From here we learn that if a person undergoes chastenings of his Lord (yissurei de-marei), they serve as atonement for his sins, and whoever is distressed over chastenings of the righteous has his sins removed. Therefore on this day we read “After the death of Aaron’s two sons,” so that the people may hear and feel distress for the loss of the righteous and gain atonement for their sins. When anyone feels sorrow over the loss of the righteous or sheds tears for them, the blessed Holy One proclaims for him, Your iniquity is removed and your sin purged (Isaiah 6:7).” (Zohar, Aharei Mot 3:57b, Matt trans.)

This Shabbat falls between the two days of the Jewish calendar on which we remember the righteous who are no longer with us, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day). Just as the authors of Leviticus Rabbah and the Zohar tried to understand death, so too do we try and find comfort or meaning after the losses that have befallen our people. While some of us may believe that the deaths of the righteous bring about atonement, I choose to emphasize the power of their memories for us.

It is through our memories of them and our tears that we bring about atonement. In that way their memories will truly be for a blessing.

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Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.