Accept the Loving Care of Others
PARASHAT SHEMINI (LEVITICUS 9:1-11:47)
My mom died three years ago. To say her death has had a profound effect on my life would be an unspeakable understatement.
In a stunning moment four months ago, marking the passage of time and possibility, I gave birth to twin boys. Since their arrival, a curious thing has happened to me. I feel my mother’s gentle actions in my life. All the time. Acutely.
Mostly, I feel her acting through the caring, nurturing, loving presence of others. My sense is that she has sent these human angels to care for me, to care for our family. For the first time since her death, I have found myself feeling safe in a way that is hard to articulate.
For me, the curious part about feeling my mom this strongly is that I have never believed that the dead act in our lives in these ways. And so, while I might not believe it is happening, I feel it is.
A teacher of mine recently told me to stop overthinking this gift from the Universe. “Just receive it with gratitude,” he told me, gently. And so I am.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, Moses’ brother, the High Priest Aaron, witnesses an unfathomable tragedy — the death of his sons. After his boys, Nadav and Avihu, clutching their incense pans, bring alien fire to the altar, a divine fire consumes them as their father and uncle look on.
I lack the words to describe the stunned silence I always have felt reading the Torah’s matter-of-fact account of this sudden, violent and seemingly nonsensical death. I long to scoop up Aaron in my arms, to hold him, to be present with him. I can’t imagine reacting in any other way.
Oddly, Aaron’s brother Moses responds coldly, with words I always have read as either a theological chastisement or platitude (depending on how generous I’m feeling): “This is what the Eternal meant when saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people” (Leviticus 10:3). Aaron hears these words and is silent.
When I reread the parsha this week, what I expected was to feel frustration with Moses’ lack of empathy. And yet, distance and time are funny things. Two hands’ worth of 5777 Omer days counted, and Moses’ words seem less horrible and more poignant: “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.”
In this statement, I always have assumed Moses was trying to tell Aaron that God was somehow illustrating the sacred in his boys’ death. But maybe Moses wasn’t talking about God’s act of divine fire in his words, after all. Maybe Moses actually was foreshadowing the seconds and minutes and years to come for Aaron. Maybe Moses knew that I would not be alone in my impulse to rush to Aaron’s side. Maybe Moses knew the community would gather around this grieving family.
“Through those near to Me I show Myself holy.”
Maybe Moses knew, despite some strange commandments about not grieving publicly, that Aaron would be comforted in whispers and actions and the loving presence of others. Maybe, much as I have begun to feel my mother’s hand in my own life through the actions of others, Moses suspected that Aaron would feel generations acting upon him, as well. “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy.”
Maybe Moses was saying to Aaron: You will feel the love of your community envelope you. You will feel holiness, if not wholeness, again. You will feel a sacred presence in your life through the kind actions of others.
During a recent conversation I had with a confirmation student at my synagogue, as he described what it means to him to be an atheist, I couldn’t help but lean forward intently. “But what about the Mystery?” I asked him. “What about the Why of the universe? The Interconnectivity?”
“I don’t feel it,” he told me.
If I am being honest, there have been times in my life when I have not have felt the Mystery, either. There have been times when I have read words of truth as words of admonishment. There have been times when a divine gift has felt hard to receive.
This week, I’m not going to overthink it, though. This week, I will endeavor to hold onto the Aarons around me, trust the truth of Moses’ explanation, and express gratitude for what I have. This week, I will try just to accept.
Rabbi Jocee Hudson is an associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.