Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Acharei Mot I
“Why are we here?” This question has plagued philosophers for the length of our existence. We experience birth, life, and then death. What’s the point? We often try to address the conundrum by answering questions tangent to the real problem. We spend our energy debating the value we experience being here. We have no way of knowing how long our span on Earth will last. As the poet Linda Ellis observed, we find a dash on tombstones between the times of our birth and death. Our life’s value rests on all that happened “In the dash.”
All that being so, how many of us spend too much time (if even any time is justified) judging the value of someone else’s life? Look, sometimes we do it in fear, arrogance, or privilege, but most of the time, I like to think that we mean well. We look at someone downtrodden and wonder as to his/her/their potential unfulfilled. We think about children who grow up in poverty, who are orphaned, or horrifically – who don’t live long enough to grow up; what could they have accomplished? Who could they have been? We look at the elderly and infirm and wonder how they handle it.
I think of my late grandfather. He practiced law before the US Supreme Court, designed the golf course for Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, MD, and was genuinely loved and respected. He resorted to calculating and comparing grocery prices for hours at his dining table to keep his mind sharp in his final years.
At the same time, I think of my late wife, Cindy, beloved nurse and mother, who died with, as we would argue – so much more for which to live. I think of the few children I have had to help bury.
Life is too short. Life is too long. How about life is what we have? Why do we have it? I don’t know, but in a slightly twisted way, I got a hint reading this week’s Torah portion.
We just celebrated Passover. We interrupted the reading cycle for special holiday texts. This Shabbat, we return to that cycle and return to Nadav and Avihu’s story. These young priests (Aaron’s sons) brought an alien fire to the altar and died. The flame leaped from the altar and consumed them. It did not burn their bodies – it took their breath.
While many sages condemn the young priests of arrogance or drunkenness, in the text “… who came close to God and died …,” the Ohr Hachayim (18th Century) offered a different take. “They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy and thereby died. Thus they died by a “Divine kiss” such as experienced by the perfectly righteous; it is only that the righteous die when the Divine kiss approaches them, while they died by their approaching it. . . . Although they sensed their own demise, this did not prevent them from drawing near to God in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kissing and sweetness, to the point that their souls ceased from them.”
Understanding the text allegorically, the purpose of living is to love and do so unconditionally – understanding that there is something more important than me.
I remember the story of Rabbi Akiva’s death. Arrested by Rome for teaching Torah, he died, executed, having his flesh scraped from his body in the public square. Just before death, the time came for reciting the evening prayers. He started to pray. His students asked in horror, “They are killing you for Torah. How can you pray now?” He responded, “All my life, I have repeated the words, “love God with all of your heart, all your soul, and all of your breath.’ As I take my last breath – all I have left, I love God.”
We think we understand potential and value. We value people based on the limitations we impose on them. I go back to my favorite Rabbinical texts. It is about me and you, and both at the same time and with the same intensity and dignity. For whatever engine it feeds, the world seems to operate much smoother in the atmosphere fueled by love than mistrust, hate, or fear. Perhaps it is just that simple. In the same sense that mutating cancer cells disrupt the body’s ability to function, our insecurities – our need to prove our worth over that of others mutate the purity of the energy that we are supposed to co-create. Maybe it really is not about us, and the “why question” is irrelevant. Our job is to love and respect. Living this model, what we do have will be blessed.