Parshat Acharei Mot: Shabbat HaGadol

Torah Reading for Week of April 6-12, 2014


“Acharei Mot: After the Deaths
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA President


The deaths referred to are those of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, which we read about in Parshat Shemini three weeks ago.  In the Torah, our relation to death comes up several times in the portions leading up to Pesach.  There was Shabbat Parah, in which we read about the red heifer, which was used to purify from contact with death.  The startling deaths of Aaron’s sons were described, and now alluded to again.  The sections about the strange skin condition known as tzaarat, often translated ‘leprosy’ (though it is not the modern disease of that name), are also associated with death.  “Let her not be as a corpse!” exclaimed Aaron when Miriam was stricken with tzaarat.  Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom suggests, indeed, that this condition was so feared because the afflicted person’s skin became scaly like that of a dead person.

Purification from nearness to death was, clearly, a major concern of the Israelite ritual system.  In this week’s parsha, the allusion to deaths is immediately followed by instructions about the priestly observance of Yom Kippur and the heavy restrictions on entering the sanctuary.  Even the high priest was in danger “lest he die”.  The impurity associated with death was so great that priests had to avoid the dead except in the case of close relatives.  We still associate Yom Kippur and atonement for sin with the “Book of Life” in contrast to the book of death. Ritually, we still have the custom of washing our hands when we leave a cemetery.

Other portions of the Israelite purity system allude to separating death from life — meat from milk, for example.  Many of the forbidden animals are predators or carrion-eaters.  That may be why most insects are forbidden – the “vegetarian” grasshopper family providing an exception.    Milgrom again holds that the very act of limiting the types of animals that can be slaughtered for food, supports the honoring of life.

The message is:  G-d is the source of life, and one’s access to that source could – almost certainly would — be compromised if one does not maintain the boundary between life and death, if one does not cleanse oneself from the touch of death.

We indeed live in a different world.  Death has lost its sting – it is no longer regarded as a contagious, threatening presence. 

And yet certain thoughts invade us when death appears, especially the death of one close to us, or an unexpected or shocking death.  Our collective thoughts about those lost on the Malaysian airliner, or those buried in the Washington mudslide, are intense, pervasive.  The shooting rampage at Ft. Hood by a man distraught over his mother’s recent death  — death generating death.  I wonder what comes after the deaths?  Were the ancient rituals designed not to prevent death or ward it off, but to heal from the despondency and fear that accompany death?   Was the preparation for Pesach to make sure, that as we enter into our festival of freedom, that we are open to the joy of that freedom?

If so, then I would ask, what about the ritual we still perform, before and during Pesach:  cleaning our homes from chametz, and not eating it for the entire holiday? Does this ritual also relate to our psychological condition?  In our mystical and Hasidic commentaries, chametz is widely understood to represent ego – the inflated ego that parallels the risen bread.  The Talmud asks, what prevents us from doing the divine will?  The answer: “the yeast in the dough.”

Leavened bread and, by extension, other leavened foods, are a unique class of foods produced by a natural chemical process that changes the nature and taste of the food significantly, but not by cooking, rather by fermenting.  Today we say of a person who nurtures a fantasy reality that “he lives in a bubble.”  Bubbles are exactly what is created by fermentation.  Metaphorically, we might say that the ferment of complex emotions creates expectations and fantasies that take us away from a simple, direct relation to life. Death may bring despondency; the inflation of the ego creates a false reality that equally blocks us from G-d.

By calling us not only to leave behind bread and cookies and cakes, oatmeal and cheerios, crackers and donuts, Danish pastry and Napoleons, spaghetti, macaroni, and linguini, Pesach also calls us to depart from displays of arrogance, temper, demand, inequality, expectation, blame, unfeeling behavior, flattery, partiality, disregard of others, indifference, vindictiveness, idle curiosity, slander, gossip, contrivance, self-righteousness, and all inflated images of ourselves.  While we are at it, we can also reject the egoistic emotions that generate those behaviors, such as desire for approval, desire to be special or exalted, self-doubt, self-pity, excessive grief, infatuation, possessiveness, pride, hatred, guilt, envy, jealousy, boredom, ambition, and resentment.

The approach to Pesach is to cast out depression and fear, so that we can be ready to take the risk of freedom, come what may.  At the same time, Pesach asks that we nullify the ego.  We come to the Seder not to show off our erudition or our gourmet cuisine, not to play to the crowd or retire into smug aloofness. 

Who knows what might happen if we did that?  This Pesach, let us come together with family and friends, without pretense like the simple matzah, simply ourselves.


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