Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, April 30, 2016
Rabbi Meira Chmiel
Nobody wants to be a martyr. Or be sentenced to death. And yet we all are anyway, at least of old age, so really there’s no way around it. Now I always could rationalize death in terms of the laws of nature or see each of us as a spirit being in an organically alive space suit that wears out over time and needs replenishing.
But this morning we’ll size this up from a different slant, a Torah world view, and reframe this death sentence in a different way. Atonement. Our sages tell us, death is our ultimate and final atonement. Really? Every death? Are they equal? How do we measure it?
We cannot. Only God can. And in the Torah and all through the biblical history of Israel, God most certainly does, reclaiming that divine spirit He breathed into us, collecting His deposit, His investment in us sometimes in sweeping ways like in the Great Flood. In parashiot that more particularly focus on priestly laws and practices, like today’s parashah, Acharei Mot, the relationship between death and atonement comes across more strongly.
Atonement is not a punishment. Atonement is not a deterrent. It is a rectification, like canceling a debt or erasing a mistake, getting us out of the red. Does carrying out the death penalty of a serial killer or a Nazi war criminal atone for all that he has perpetrated? In a Buddhist or Kabbalistic world view, it would take many lifetimes of sacrificial deaths to effect such atonement. But in Torah, death and its atoning value cannot be measured and delineated so quantitatively. Any more than the value of one life laid down in sacrifice for the sake of many.
Acharei Mot begins with the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons at the hand of God and juxtaposes it with a detailed description of the High Priest’s atonement ceremony on behalf of the entire congregation at Yom Kippur, a ceremony that he performs at risk of his own life. Specifically, it says: “The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons, when they approached before the Lord and died…Speak to your brother Aharon that he not come at all times into the Sanctum inside the cloth partition, in front of the Cover that is upon the Ark, so he will not die, for I appear over the Cover in a cloud. With this, Aharon will come…” Rashi [transl, Yoseph Milstein, in Chok L’Yisrael, Leviticus 16:1, vol. 6, p.1] explains: “so that he will not die the way that his sons died… for I continuously appear there with My pillar of cloud…and Aharon must be careful not to be accustomed to enter therein…”
The earlier parashah Shemini, which describes the actual circumstances of Nadav and Avihu’s death in the inner Sanctum, also alludes to several other errors that could cause a priest to die during his holy task. But we are encouraged by the Acharei Mot reference to the event, to look beyond these “why” questions at what is really the overarching theme, brought out especially here. How a priest, especially a High Priest, serves his congregation by bringing about atonement for them, not just individually as in Metzora, but collectively, as we see described here today in the ceremonial acts and stringencies of Yom Kippur. Looking back at Shemini, notice how Moshe guides the bereaved family step by step through that priestly process they’re in the midst of learning when the young men are struck by God, to prevent the survivors from any error in the Sanctum that could get them killed as well. Then note as well Aharon’s risky, life-threatening task described in today’s parashah of going each year into the inner Sanctum to purify it, atone for himself, for his household and for all the assembly of Israel, and even for that most holy place itself and the altar and the tent of meeting. Notice how he intercedes, acting as a channel as he places his hands firmly upon the head of the goat to be sent away and effects the transfer of the accumulated psychic load of Israel, the whole collective, onto that goat.
Atonement. When your mishkan, your temple, your central shrine is destroyed, your priests retired from service and not even able to maintain their own purity or seek atonement for themselves, how do you get atonement? At Yavneh, our leaders decided, “the bullocks of the lips” could fulfill our daily sacrificial obligation, and we agreed to minyan and private prayer services at least twice daily to replace our priestly system. An additional evening service grew out of the bedtime sh’ma.
This solution was certainly bloodless. Life is in the blood and sacred to God, and God never liked blood to be shed. Not uselessly, not for a waste. The only sacrifice remaining to us now from the original blood covenant we had with God is circumcision. But all around us blood has continued to be shed and life to be destroyed wantonly down through the ages. Is the human karmic debt, our atonement quota, paid in full on the balance sheet?
In recent years I’ve discovered Israel’s other atonement process, one that did indeed involve life-blood sacrifice, that was originally represented by Aharon’s priesthood, and is still practiced today in our Yom Kippur martyrology. References to it lie in the parashiot Shemini, Hukkot, and in today’s Acharei Mot. Zohar’s midrash on Acharei Mot brings it out, drawing from numerous tractates in the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmud and even earlier midrashic sources. These sources all call it, “The death of the righteous effects atonement.”
Midrash Rabbah [20:12, Soncino ed.] teaches: “Rabbi Hiyya b. Abba stated: The sons of Aharon died on the first of Nissan. Why then is their death mentioned in connection with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur? It must be to teach that as the Day of Atonement effects atonement, so the death of the righteous effects atonement. Whence do we know that the Day of Atonement effects atonement? From Leviticus [16:30]: ‘For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you.’ And whence do we know that the death of the righteous effects atonement? From 2 Samuel [21:14] ‘And they buried the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son… and they performed all that the king [David] commanded. And after that God was entreated for the land.’”
Tractate Shabbat of the BT [33b, Soncino ed.] teaches: “Rabbi Gorion said, When there are righteous ones in the generation, the righteous are seized for the sin of the generation. When there are no righteous in the generation, school children are seized for the sin of the generation.” And Moed Katan [28a, Soncino ed.] reminds us, “Miriam also died by a divine kiss…Why is the account of Miriam’s death placed next to the laws of the red heifer? To inform you that even as the red heifer afforded atonement, so does the death of the righteous afford atonement [for the living]. Rabbi Eleazar said, Why is Aharon’s death closely followed by the disposal of the priestly vestments? That just as the priest’s vestments were means to effect atonement, so is the death of the righteous [conducive to effecting] atonement.”
Zohar [3:57b], parashat Acharei Mot teaches: “Rabbi Yose said, ‘On Yom Kippur this portion has been instituted to atone for Israel in exile because the order of the day is arranged here and because the death of Aaron’s sons atones for Israel.’ [The Zohar, translation and commentary by Daniel Matt, Pritzker Ed., vol. 7, p.369]” Daniel Matt’s footnote 40 adds, “Since sacrifices can no longer be offered (now that the Temple is destroyed), instead the people of Israel read... the order of this day. And by recalling and contemplating the death of Aaron’s two sons, they can gain atonement.” [Ibid]
Zohar [Ibid, p.369-70] continues, “From here we learn that if a person undergoes chastenings of his Lord, they serve as atonement for his sins, and whoever is distressed over chastenings of the righteous has his sins removed. Therefore on this day we read ‘Acharei Mot’ so that people may hear and feel distress for the loss of the righteous and gain atonement for their sins. When anyone feels sorrow over the loss of the righteous or sheds tears for them, the blessed Holy One proclaims for him, ‘Your iniquity is removed and your sin purged’ [Is. 6:7] Furthermore, his children will not die in his lifetime, and of him it is written, ‘He will see seed and prolong his days, and the desire of YHVH will succeed in his hand [Is. 53:10].’
Do we as a Jewish people observe these practices today? Perhaps not calling it a kaparah consciously, overtly in our liturgy. And yet we do something very like this to a remarkable degree. Two days ago Yom HaShoa, reading the lists of names, all our many ways of mourning and remembering. Four fasts of the year for the destruction of our first temple and on Tisha B’Av, mourning and remembering as well the second temple, the evictions of our people, and martyrs down through the ages. Yom HaZicaron. And most striking of all—our martyrology in the Yom Kippur service itself, before N’eila, retelling the terrible agony and sacrifice of our ten revered rabbis, described afterwards by the sages of our people as an atonement sacrifice for an ancient wrong requiring ten righteous men, tzaddikim, in the same generation.
There is a practice—I have done it—to seek or pray intercession at the graves of tzaddikim. It was at the grave of Rabbi Akiva, one of the ten martyred tzaddikim, that it happened. I prostrated myself on the ground close up to the cave opening into the kever as is customary, and as I lay there gazing in through the grill, an immense wave of grief welled up and began pouring through me, unscrolling in a torrent through me for what became of Rabbi Akiva’s people in exile down through the ages, as I lay sobbing for many minutes, deeply, intimately bound up with that and with him and with God, all of it one. And then it was over and I stood up, returning to our world, our Israel today and where we have come.
Can we even understand or accept today the theological implications of a death as atonement, especially one where God has decided who will die and atone for the rest of us? Our fallen ones in the military who gave themselves for us and our values, have they also given themselves for our souls, that we may really live? Those who intercede for us, their death, like that of the High Priest long ago, pays our requital, our ransom, our atonement sacrifice. We are released from our cities of refuge where we were forced to live in exile so long ago, to return to our original home at last. Debt free, yes, but all the more obligated by our freedom to pay it forward to help others.
Ken yhi ratzon, may it be God’s will.