Death can remind us that life is a blessing

Aharei Mot

Leviticus 16:1-18:30

Ezekiel 22:1-22:19

A biblical verse is a prism. Different colors are thrown off, depending upon the way the verse is turned. What seemed dull and unpromising now enchants, and we are led along a journey that stops when we are weary, not when meaning is exhausted. “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, who died when they drew too close to the essence of the Lord.”

Although Aharei Mot begins by recalling the death of Aaron’s two sons, the bulk of the portion is devoted to elaborating the Temple rites of Yom Kippur. What is the connection between the two events?

In the Jerusalem Talmud, we read: “Why was their death mentioned in the portion dealing with Yom Kippur? To teach that just as Yom Kippur atones for Israel, so does the death of the righteous atone for Israel” (Yoma 1:1).

Rabbi David Wolpe has written that perhaps the death of the righteous is like a sacrifice in the Temple, a vicarious offering for the fallen state of the people. When good people die before their time, it enables the rest of us, stretched along the endless middling rungs of righteousness, to be cleansed. Although this might strike some as having Christological overtones, the idea of vicarious atonement has deep roots in Judaism. When righteous people suffer, they suffer not for their own sins, but because they bear the sins of others.

This theological statement mirrors our everyday experience. Righteous people do indeed suffer for the sins of other people. The well-behaved child stays after class and the honest politician is pulled down by the behavior of colleagues. In evil regimes, it is often the best that are broken under the wheel of tyranny set in motion by others.

But the rabbinic comment is more than a description of reality. It teaches that somehow the death of the righteous is to be wished for, since it is the atonement the people need. Such a theology is so problematic that we can no longer take comfort in the death of the good by claiming it as a divine benefit.

In the midrash of Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, we learn how the Israelites honored Saul and Jonathan when they died. According to the text, when God saw how Israel had lovingly treated Saul after death, God sent rain upon the land as an act of compassion. Accordingly, the death of the righteous atones when the people use the occasion of a righteous person’s death to honor that person, and thus show that they appreciate the quality of righteousness. It is our reaction to death, not the fact of death that leads to atonement. Atonement is not a once-a-year, prescribed ritual event. Atonement for our sins can occur at any time. Daily small atonements are the currency of successful relationships: the same pattern of regret, apology and resolve that we learn on Yom Kippur is central to our lives each day of the year.

Sometimes the focus on the High Holy Days leads us to forget that we are asked to constantly explore ourselves and our souls; that to be good is a struggle which may peak once a year, but never fully subsides. The death of a righteous person helps us to recognize anew that goodness is not a matter of a moment, or a day, but of unremitting effort. When someone dies, it should remind us not to squander our own lives on ephemera, or on evil.

Life tricks us into believing in its eternity. Living with death, we deny its omnipresence. When someone of stature dies, it helps recall to us the fleetingness of life. Certain people seem almost immune from death; they seem immortal. Suddenly we are forcefully reminded that this is an illusion.

The death of Nadav and Avihu is the drama of an instant and it reminds us that our hold on life is precarious. Two priests died because “they drew too close to the presence of the Lord” in some excess of piety or zeal. We cannot suppose that to live relatively callous lives, far from the fire of God, will keep us safe. There is no safety, not in devotion nor in distance, and we should remember that each day is a blessing and a precious gift.

Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.