Parshat Shemini & Conclusion of Passover

Torah Reading for Week of April 12-18, 2020
By Rabbi Alicia Magal, ’03
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
This was a Passover like no others in our memory… We could neither invite nor accept invitations to Seders with large gatherings of family and friends as in the past.  We did not have the hundred-plus people at a synagogue Community Seder, nor the Women’s Seder with a special Haggadah emphasizing the role of women in the Exodus and in history that our Women’s Havurah has led for over 15 years here in Sedona, AZ.
I could not perform my role as rabbi  in the way I had done joyfully for my congregation and visitors.  We had to shift to a whole new way of connecting and creating some sense of celebration of Passover while observing physical separation during this pandemic of Covid19.  There was a death of a beloved member; I dealt with Taharah and burial alone. My father’s Yahrzeit fell during Passover; there was no regular service.  So how did we adjust and find a new way to create community and keep those links strong?
I learned how to lead morning minyan on Zoom and counted a virtual minyan so we could say kaddish.  We live-streamed Friday services on Facebook, and helped older congregants figure out how to log in and feel a part of the community, although I was leading the service with my husband in a totally empty sanctuary.  We made a schedule of Zoom classes Monday through Thursday at a set time, including topics such as sharing uplifting poems, looking further inside familiar prayers such as the Shema and Mi She Beirach;  weekly Jewish Meditation, and Torah study of the weekly parsha.  Those who lived alone were able to participate, and see the faces and hear the voices of their friends.  I was able to say kaddish for my father, as could others who were observing a yahrzeit of a loved one.
How to link the themes of Shemini with these strange times, and find some inner meaning from the story of Nadav and Avihu who brought “strange fire” to the incense altar on their very first time officiating in the Mishkan, and died instantly?  I looked not to their story this year, but rather focused on their father, Aaron, the High Priest.  How did he deal with a personal catastrophe and yet go on serving his people?  How did he deal with the paradox of doing holy work which was kadosh – separate, distinct, set aside, dedicated to God – while assisting ha-Am – the People- to draw closer to divine service through sacrifices, in Hebrew Korban (from the root KRV – to draw close)?  He had to quiet his personal feeling (Vayidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent; i.e. could not mourn publicly), and had to adjust to a new reality.  It would not be the normal order of his elder two sons performing holy work, and unexpectedly, suddenly, it would fall to cousins, Mishael and Elzaphan, to carry out the bodies of Nadav and Avihu outside the camp.  Aaron and his two younger sons Eleazar and Ithamar could not show signs of mourning, but rather they would have to continue to serve as ritual leaders in their duty to the congregation of Israel.  Further, God spoke to Aaron regarding a state of purity, distinguishing between sacred and profane, between clean and unclean.  At this time of keeping distance lest we become infected, and of asking ourselves – rabbis, cantors, chaplains –  how we can best serve our communities, putting our own issues aside, while taking great care to stay safe, and counting on our deep connection and faith in God to continue to be a guide and comfort to those in our congregations, we must adapt, and perform our duties in a whole new way, yet remain grounded and connected to tradition in ways we could not have expected mere weeks ago. Like Aaron, we are living with the paradox of separate yet connected, carrying on while dealing with a new and shocking reality. May we all rise to the challenge and continue to be channels of healing and divine connection.