D’Var Torah

Shemini, 5784 (April 6, 2024)

Rabbi Micah Friedman

How can we celebrate in a dark time?

     This question is on my mind today as we prepare for Pesach in what feels – in several different ways – like a distinctly dark time. 

     On one level, on Monday afternoon the light of the Sun will be eclipsed – we will witness an exceptional darkness. Though in our culture, the eclipse is considered to be exciting and thrilling – a memorable moment of awe and wonder, we can also relate to the eclipse as a reminder of how small we are as human beings. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, our lives are fleeting under the sun. 

     Our calendar of sacred scriptural readings leading up to Pesach put in front of us passages that pon out our mortality – that remind us in different ways of the vulnerability of human life and of the tremendous impact that encountering death has on the human spirit.

     From the first Pesach in Egypt, our liberation has been accompanied by close encounters with death. On the night of Pesach, the first born sons of each Egyptian house were killed in an act of Divine violence that paralleled the earlier murder of the Hebrew boy-children. We escape the violence of this plague – and perpetual bondage – through slaughtering and eating a lamb or goat and coating our doorway with blood. 

     Every year, a few weeks before Pesach we read the mitzvah of the Red Heifer – a purification ritual to be performed by a priest for a group of people when they have come into close contact with a dead body – either in the same room or in an open field. This process which takes a week was not always completed immediately after burying the dead, so in ancient times we began to read the rules of the purification procedure to encourage everyone to participate before making pilgrimage to the Temple to eat of the Passover sacrifice. Now, when we read this passage as we did last week, it reminds us of our encounters with death in this past year. 

     We also almost always read the parsha of Shemini before Pesach which – in addition to detailing which kinds of animals we can eat as meat – recounts the story of the tragic and unforeseen death of Aaron’s two eldest sons Nadav and Avihu who were consumed by fire after some kind of mistake in their priestly worship. 

     In the wake of this loss, Aaron asserts that it would have been wrong for him to eat the meat of the New Moon offering while in Aninut – the stage of mourning which begins immediately after the death of a loved one. Remarkably, despite initially critiquing Aaron, Moses acknowledges that it would not have been good in the eyes of G-d for him to eat the meat while experiencing such immediate grief. 

     This scene with which we opened our Torah reading today, anticipates the claim of a group of Israelites who we encounter in Bamidbar chapter 9. In the second year of the Israelites journey through the wilderness of Sinai, they find themselves unable to participate in the celebration of Pesach because they have just encountered death. They are Tamei Met – rendered unable to enter the Temple courtyard since they have recently been in close contact with death. This leads to the establishment of Pesach Sheini – or 2nd Passover – an opportunity for these mourners to celebrate a month later when they have been able to properly grieve and become purified. 

     Both Aaron and these Israelite mourners are vindicated explicitly by Moses and G-d when they claim that they cannot fully participate in a sacred sacrificial meal while mourning a recent encounter with death. While over the course of the evolution of Jewish tradition, the halakha has become clear that everyone should celebrate Pesach at the same time – on the same night of the year when our ancestors ate the first lamb of Pesach with Matzah and Maror – I think it would behoove us to learn from the claims of Aaron and these later unnamed Israelite mourners. There is a way in which encountering death prevents us from fully participating in our people’s festive celebrations. 

     15 years ago, a few days before Passover, my older brother died suddenly. It was then that I learned the well-established practice of abbreviating the period of Shiva so that mourners can participate in the seasonal celebration. This year, I have mourned with so many of you. We have mourned very recent losses, even within this past week and we have mourned losses which linger on our hearts though they took place years ago. 

     We have also mourned together the death of so many people in our ancient homeland – the holy land of Israel. The grief I continue to feel for the ongoing loss of life in Eretz Yisrael has pushed me to think differently about our ancient Jewish conceptions of Aninut and Tuma’t Meit. There is a way in which digital media has transformed our experience of encountering death. While in ancient times, it was a rare and uncommon experience to get an up close glimpse of a dead body. Every day, I see photos of dead bodies in the newspaper and on my phone and laptop. We have all seen photos – and even videos – of the horrific killing that took place on October 7th and I imagine that many of us will struggle to ever forget those images. We have also seen photos and footage of so many people – tragically many civilians – who have been killed in the crossfires of the war in Gaza. These photos leave an imprint on our hearts and souls. 

     In a sense, I believe this something of the ancient experience of becoming Tamei Met – impure or incapable of entering the Temple courtyard in the way of an encounter with human death. I mean this not in a technical legal sense, but rather in an emotional-spiritual-psychological sense. In a technical legal sense, everyone in the world is considered Tamei Met because without the purification procedure of the red heifer anyone who has directly come in contact with a dead body transfers that tumaah to others. Rather, I mean to claim that we have all been emotionally, psychologically and spiritually impacted by seeing death with our own eyes – even if filtered through the lens of a newspaper or instagram. 

     And – just like our ancestors needed to engage in the purification procedure of the red heifer before eating the Pesach lamb – if we are to fully celebrate and experience Passover, we must acknowledge that we have been impacted by our encounters with death in this past year. I hope that by giving attention to this grief, we can create the room in our hearts to be spiritually open for the liberatory experience of Pesach. 

     While we do not have the potion of the Parah Adumah with which to technically purify ourselves, I believe that through focusing our hearts and minds on the emotional work of acknowledging and grieving the losses we have witnessed and experienced, we can in a sense purify ourselves in preparation for Passover. 

     I also want to suggest – and perhaps to pray – that the classical physical traditions of preparing for Pesach can also help with this inner spiritual process or preparation and purification. As we clear our homes of Hametz and crumbs – as we clean our ovens and stoves – this physical process of Spring cleaning can prompt us to remember what we’ve been through since last Passover. The crumbs and crusts of bread we find can conjure for us the many different meals we’ve eaten over the course of the year – meals of mourning and meals of joy. 

     And – hopefully – though we all carry with us some sense of grief as we prepare for Pesach – we may also feel a sense of gratitude for having been passed over by the angel of death – for surviving until this season once more in which we celebrate our freedom. If, like Aaron, we feel we must moderate our celebration, perhaps not drinking so much wine or eating so much meat, that is okay – even good in the eyes of G-d. 

     However, we choose to participate in Pesach, may we feel some sense of emerging from darkness and suffering to light and joy and may all the inhabitants of the earth celebrate together a complete redemption next year in Jerusalem.