Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

By Cantor Seth Ettinger, ’14

The Golden Rule First Begins With You

In this week’s double Torah portion, Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, the timing of the laws outlining Aaron’s performance of the sacrificial rite as the newly ordained Kohein Gadol, provides a practical application in how we as klei kodesh can further fulfill the mitzvah found in Kedoshim to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). In the opening verses of Acharei Mot, God says to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover (Leviticus 16:2). Aaron as the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest of Israel, has the sole ability (and responsibility) to make expiation to God for the sins of himself, his household, and all of Israel by entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and performing the sacrificial rite. If Aaron is not completely pure of heart and mind, he will die upon entering. It is extraordinary for God to expect Aaron to perform this life-threatening act under such great pressure with the death of his sons so fresh in his mind but from what we have learned about Aaron thus far, he is the modus exemplar for keeping calm under pressure.

In his book, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin cites a famous Jewish parable based on Pirkei Avot where Aaron uses active listening to maintain peace among the Jewish people. According to the parable, when Aaron would see two men quarreling, he would go to the first man and tell him that his friend felt terrible about the quarrel and wanted to ask for forgiveness. He would listen to the first man vent until eventually all of his anger had subsided. When the first man was through, Aaron would do the same to the second and listen until his anger subsided.  By the time the two men saw each other again, they had forgotten about the quarrel and embraced. Aaron had the unique ability to hold someone else’s burden and remain pure of heart so that they could heal.

The first verse of Acharei Mot, draws on the the episode earlier in Parshat Shemini when Aaron falls silent in response to the death of his sons and remains silent for an undisclosed amount of time (Leviticus 9:3) When Aaron does speak again he demonstrates a self-actualized understanding regarding the appropriateness of his own sacrificial duties under such circumstances (Leviticus 9:19) Though we do not explicitly know his inner processes, we can speculate that during the silence, Aaron was actively listening to his own self going through the five stages of grief and did not emerge until he had reached acceptance teaching how active listening to our emotions first will better prepare us to hold sacred space for others. This is in-line with Rabbi Akiva’s midrashic teaching on the “Golden Rule” that before you can truly love another, you must first love yourself.

I imagine we all have an “Aaron” figure in our lives. Someone we go to for guidance who we feel knows  us inside and out and always listens. This person might listen to our pain and offer advice, or listen to hold our pain. Who is your “Aaron”?

My “Aaron” was my uncle Alex of blessed memory. He helped me to heal from a trauma I experienced in my twenties simply by holding space for me to vent and cry. He never said a word, just listened and only offered advice or his thoughts if I asked for it. Never once did I feel like he was judging me nor did he ever tell me that I was making a mistake or doing something foolish. He just listened.  This coming January marks his 9th yahrtzeit and while it is sad, I will always remember the gift he gave me – recognizing that I too can be like “Aaron” and hold space for others simply by listening. In fact, he gave me the greatest opportunity to be an “Aaron” for him in his final weeks.

Uncle Alex was diagnosed with brain cancer and the last two months of his life were especially rough. He would call me constantly to cry, yell, and vent. Though my automatic response was to want to reply, to talk, to verbalize my thoughts and my feelings and tell him that it would be ok, in those moments I forced myself to listen and hold his pain and it is still one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. When we see someone suffering we want to “help them” and we will try to offer anecdotes or try to give them the best advice when sometimes they just need someone to listen. My aunt recently revealed just how much my listening comforted him in his final months.

Just like Aaron the priest, we as Klei Kodesh must keep strengthening our ability to create the tzim tzum needed in ourselves to hold the necessary sacred space for others when they need it. It might at first seem impossible especially when we are at our most vulnerable but through daily active introspection we can strengthen our ability and agility to do so.  Let’s start this week.

When your son, daughter, grandchild, friend, mother, or father calls you to vent, ask them, “Am I listening to offer advice or do you just want me to listen to help hold your burden?” I’m serious! actually ask the question and notice how everything will shift for you and that person in that moment. It is a beautiful gift we can give to listen—to hold space for someone—to allow that person to feel loved and to feel safe. This is a true gift of self-love that we all possess and that costs us nothing to give.