This morning’s Torah portion has kind of a dark title. Acharei Mot means “after the death.”
“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.”
Following are detailed instructions of the ritual of atonement that Aaron and future High Priests are to perform on Yom Kippur. The purpose of these rituals is to purify the Tabernacle, and later the Sanctuary, which becomes stained with ritual pollution during the preceding year.
As the nexus between heaven and earth, the place where the Shechinah, God’s Presence, comes to dwell amidst the people, this is especially important. The Shechinah is not able to remain in a polluted shrine. The rituals we read about this morning serve to cleanse it of its impurities.
Why do these instructions that Aaron receives need to be preceded by a reference to the deaths of his sons, Nadav and Avihu?
Perhaps it is meant as a warning. Entering the Holy of Holies, the most sacred precinct, is a potentially dangerous endeavor. Only the High Priest is permitted to do it. And he has to be extremely careful. One mistake can result in death.
The mention of Nadav and Avihu is meant to serve as a warning that the risk is real. The task of the High Priest is so great, that he needed to approach it with the utmost respect and care.
But that was then. We take this warning figuratively today. When we enter the synagogue, we bring our whole selves. We come with respect and care, just like the High Priest. Prayer in synagogue is a confrontation with our own mortality – symbolically, not literally.
A synagogue, just like a Church, a Mosque, or a Temple, is supposed to be a place of peace. A place that is open to all, where worshippers are safe to enter. Because it is only when we feel a sense of safety and security that we can really allow ourselves to be vulnerable. To pour out our gratitude, our fears, our happiness, and our sadness before our Creator.
Last week, during Shabbat services, right before the Yizkor memorial service on the eighth day of Passover, the prayers of our brothers and sisters at the Chabad of Poway were interrupted with bullets.
We mourn the death of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, may her memory be a blessing. She was murdered as she used her body as a shield to protect Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, enabling him to evacuate children to safety. Rabbi Goldstein was shot in the hand, losing a finger. Almog Peretz was shot in the leg. Noya Dahan, an eight year old girl, was injured by shrapnel.
This attack occurred six months to the day after thirteen worshippers were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
It is sickening. As Jews, an attack in a synagogue hits especially close to home, making us feel unsafe in our own house of worship. But it is just as sickening as the murder of Muslim worshippers at a mosque in Christchurch and Christian worshippers at churches in Sri Lanka.
I resist the temptation to say “Where were you God?” The evidence would suggest that it is not in God’s nature to prevent such things. This hatred and violence is a human disease.
We observed Yom HaShoah this week, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We know all too well about the evils humans are capable of. Sadly, there have been other times in our history when our houses of worship were not places of refuge.
The part that is so frustrating is that the vast, vast majority of people are kind, generous, and compassionate (or at the very least: nonviolent). We were all greeted this morning by friends from our interfaith community who came to express their love and support for us. How moving it was to be reassured that, although we may have different rituals, we share the same values of peace and freedom.
It is such an exceedingly small number who are prepared to act out their hatred. The nature of terror is that it seeks to create irrational fear that is disproportionate to the threat.
What do we do now? Do we allow a few extremists paralyze us, to prevent us from living? We cannot.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who lived in far more precarious times, famously said: Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od. V’ha’ikar lo lefached k’lal. The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the main principle is not be afraid at all.
Here at Sinai, we take safety seriously. We have taken many concrete actions over the years, and continue to do more, to make sure that this will continue to be a house of peace. A place where we can be vulnerable spiritually and emotionally… not physically.
Our response must be to continue to live, to sing and dance, to be together. We must not be afraid at all. That is the true act of faith.
Minutes after being shot, Rabbi Goldstein stood up on a chair and addressed his congregation. “Am Yisrael Chai!” he declared. “The people of Israel live!” He continued, “We are going to stand tall, we are going to stand proud of our heritage. If a little light can dispel a lot of darkness, than many lights can truly illuminate the whole world.”
We have to be those lights, for each other, and for the world. I am so proud of all of us who are here, overcoming fear, to dispel the darkness.