A few moments ago our Torah reading began: VaYidabar Adonoi El Moshe Achrai Mot Shnei B’nai Aharon B’karavtom lifnei Adonoi, V’yamutu.” “Adonoi spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, when they drew too close to the presence of Adonai.” The rest of our Torah reading follows this sentence with a set of instructions that Moses is then supposed to pass on to his brother Aaron telling Aaron and his sons how to function as priests.
I’ve probably read this Torah reading… or have heard it read… on every Yom Kippur of my adult life, plus on a few Shabbats and at various times that I’ve studied or taught the Book of Leviticus. Maybe seventy times? Eighty? One hundred? I even delivered a drash on this Torah portion on Yom Kippur 14 years ago when I talked about Aaron’s creation of Sacred Space. But this time when I opened my mahzor to prepare for this drash, I couldn’t get past the first sentence. I was flooded with questions:
Our text says: “Adonai spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron…..”
Is this set of instructions from God via Moses coming immediately after Nadav and Abihu’s deaths? Did the incident happen the day before? Five days before? Or five years before?
If his sons had just died, what sort of shape is Aaron in? Can Aaron really hear what Moses is telling him to do?
Is Aaron past the days when he can’t fall asleep at night, reliving that horrible scene that happened right in front of him? Does he still wake up at 3 am, unable to fall back to sleep? Are Abihu and Nadav still on his mind first thing in the morning when he opens his eyes? Can he manage to eat more than a tiny bit of food? Do people still look at him compassionately? Does he still imagine he sees his dead sons in the crowd?
And what about Aaron’s remaining sons, Eleazar and Itamar? How has their brother’s death affected them? Some of the priestly instructions that follow are for them as well. Do they feel that it should still be their brothers helping their dad instead of just the two of them? Are they living in constant fear that they too will misunderstand God’s instructions and like their brothers, be killed instantly? And do Eleazar and Itamar miss taking those late evening walks around the oasis with Nadav and Abihu? Does everyone in the family stare at their empty places at meals when the extended family gets together?
Also God speaks to Aaron not directly but through Moses. How does it feel to hear God through your brother, especially when you are in a fragile state? Does some sibling rivalry get in the way?
So many questions. I rushed to my bookshelf to look at the Book of Leviticus. I wanted to see how this morning’s Torah reading, the beginning of Chapter 16, fits into Leviticus as a whole. The way I read it, the whole book – at least up to Chapter 10 – is a set of very specific and exact instructions on how and what to sacrifice in the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting and in the inner part, the Holy of Holies.
Chapters 1-7 contain one long speech telling WHAT to do and then Chapters 8 and 9 portrays how those instructions were carried out for the first time with Moses washing Aaron and his sons, dressing them and anointing Aaron. Some of the actions are just for Aaron but mainly Aaron and his sons were a package deal when it came to priestly duties. So we have nine chapters of precise instructions for only five men: Aaron, Eleazar, Itamar, Nadav and Abihu.
Then in two lines at the beginning of Chapter 10 it all goes south. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu don’t follow the instructions exactly and are consumed by fire. Moses basically responds by saying, “They didn’t listen to God.” And then all we are told was that “Aaron was silent.”
There are a few quick sentences on disposing of the bodies and commanding Aaron, Itamar and Eleazar who still have the oil from their anointing on their bodies, not to mourn. And by verse 8 we are ready for God to dictate chapters of more rules as if nothing has happened. We get the laws of Kashrut, post-partum instructions for a new mom, dermatological, urological and gynecological instructions and then we get to our very strange Yom Kippur ritual that our Torah readers just leyned.
In the rare practice called “rites of riddance” the transgressions of the Israelites are transferred on to a scapegoat. To begin with, God says to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the shrine behind the curtain in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die.” And after what has just happened to Abihu and Nadav, everyone, especially Aaron, Eleazar and Itamar know that God is not kidding.
Aaron isn’t to come into the shrine AT WILL but he can still come in. In fact, he is the ONLY one who CAN come in. Aaron can’t come in at will because God is there. It’s like parents who teach young children about the privacy of a closed bedroom or bathroom door. You can only come in when I say it’s ok to enter.
Aaron is commanded to come in with a bull for purification offering and a ram for a burnt offering and two he-goats. And remember, he is to come in alone. Really? Help me with the math. If Moses died at 120, he was 80 at the start of the Exodus and this is a little bit later. And Aaron is older than Moses. I’m having trouble picturing man in his 80’s who is commanded to be alone in the room, wrangling the bull, the ram and two goats by himself. I don’t think his orthopedist or his physical therapist would be happy with all that heavy lifting. But I digress.
First Aaron sacrifices the bull to expiate his own sins and those of his household. Once he himself is sinless, he then takes the two he-goats and places lots on them to see which goat will be sacrificed and which will be designated for Azazel, to be sent to the wilderness with the sins of the whole community on its head.
So many questions again:
How does Aaron feel if indeed these instructions come right after his sons’ deaths? So soon after a human death, would he have found it more difficult to slaughter these animals? With the power of deciding which goat should be slaughtered and which should be sent to the wilderness in his hands, would Aaron have wondered if Abihu and Nadav had gotten the wrong end of a lottery?
This year as I read these verses, I looked at Aaron as a frightened, fragile, elderly man living in the shadow of his brother, someone terrified of being alone in a room with the God who had just killed his two sons because they seemingly inadvertently did not follow directions exactly to a tee.
I think I saw Aaron this way in our Torah reading because I was wearing my pair of Perspectacles. Perspectacles? Perspectacles are something left over in my toolbox from a career as a Jewish educator.
While trying to imagine what it felt like at that moment to be Aaron….and Itamar and Eleazar (not to mention Aaron’s wife Elisheva who is absent from our text, but that’s a drash for another time)… To imagine what it felt like to be these three men at the beginning of Leviticus 16, my mind went back to a YouTube video that I used to suggest my teachers use before I retired, when I was still directing Midrasha. The 5-minute video was called Perspectacles. I was curious to see if the video was still up on the internet and found not only the fairly home-made 2009 version, but a couple more polished recent versions with slightly different plot lines as well. Basically the story goes like this: a high school student, a Big Man On Campus, strides into his school. He has no name but for our purposes, I’ll call him Ploni Almoni. Ploni sees a shy girl sitting on the school steps sketching and sneers at her: “ What a freak.” He finds three girls huddled in front of his locker and rudely pushes them aside. A teacher is passing out flyers announcing a talent show that evening and the boy crumbles up the flyer and throws it at the teacher’s feet. He sees two older boys bullying a younger student and ignores the situation. He then wanders into the cafeteria where he sees a glasses case labeled “Perspecticles” on a table. In one of the other versions, Ploni is handed the glasses by a kindly custodian who has been observing our “hero” acting so unheroic. Curious, Ploni puts on the glasses and wanders back though the high school hallway. He quickly bumps into a girl, and the screen of his glasses tells him: “Dad died two days ago.” Ploni is taken aback. While still in shock of the power of his new glasses he’s jostled by another couple. His Perspecticles tell him that the girl is in an abusive relationship and the boy is addicted to painkillers. Rather than being his normal, rude self, amazed, he continues down the hall. The bullies are still harassing the younger boy and Ploni’s glasses tell Ploni that the victim is motherless and that one bully has an abusive father and the other is getting poor grades but wants to go to college. Ploni tells the bullies to leave and makes sure the victim is ok. He goes back past the teacher with the talent show flyers. The pair of Perspecticles tells Ploni that this teacher is feeling unsuccessful. Ploni now takes the time to tell the teacher that he enjoyed his last class and asks details about talent show the teacher has organized. Ploni then runs into the girls he’s pushed from the front of his locker. His Perspecticles tell him that one girl is anorexic and one cuts herself. He apologies for his previous actions and tells the girls they all are looking pretty. He pauses to look at himself in a bathroom mirror and sees through his Perspecticles that he never feels good enough about himself and that he’s ashamed, nervous and embarrassed by his actions. And last Ploni sees the girl on the school steps that he had called a freak in the first scene of the video. No longer needing his Perspecticles as a guide, Ploni leaves them for someone else as he befriends the girl, asking her to go with him to the talent show. As the couple walks away, the camera peaks through the discarded Perspecticles to show that the girl had been contemplating suicide but now knows that someone cares. Ploni has achieved what David Neufeld taught us in this room in his moving drash on Rosh HaShana that we need to show compassion and work hard at change.
I guess I was wearing my Perspecticles when I read the first sentence of our Torah reading. I saw Aaron and the frames of my glasses lit up and said: just saw two of his children vaporized before his eyes. With my Perspecticles I was wondering how Aaron and his sons managed to function to carry out their priestly duties after suffering an immediate loss. But perhaps the lesson we can all take away is that we all need a pair of Perspecticles in our back pocket. Ploni Almoni, our YouTube hero, saw how he was cruel and unkind, how he mocked, neglected, oppressed, acted thoughtlessly, scorned his teacher, used foul speech, was cynical, condescending, judgmental, selfish and arrogant, rashly judged others, had baseless hatred and was oppressive. If that sounds familiar it’s because those verbs come straight from the Ashamnu and Al Chet prayers that that we say many times today.
One is supposed to spend the month of Elul asking those around us for forgiveness for ways we have injured them in the past year. I admit it’s a mitzvah I rarely follow. Of those sitting in the room today, only my husband and maybe my son have probably heard me apologize recently. So let me take this public opportunity to ask any one here that I have wronged in any way, to please forgive me, although I surely feel that a blanket request like that surely does not take the place of the hard work of a personal conversation.
We spend Yom Kippur asking for forgiveness from God but we can make things right with our fellow humans all year long. We just have to remember to do some introspective work and then take the time and make the effort to say we are sorry. The first step is to keep a pair of Perspecticles in our back pocket to teach us that everyone is more complex than we think. To teach us that everyone is filled with burdens that we don’t know about. Aaron was able to carry out what God commanded, no matter what he was feeling inside. It is our jobs to use our Perspecticles to try to look inside those around us, to give them some slack and not be judgmental, to tell them we understand what they are going through, to ask how we can help and even to help them without asking. We need to use the Perspecticles on ourselves as well. We need to have our own Ashamnu and Al Chet moments not just today but all year long and then when we realize what we’ve done wrong, to do something about it.
I hope I remember to follow my own advice.
Wishing you all G’mar Tov and may we all find a fresh pair of Perspectacles to wear in the coming year.