San Francisco's Marina District was hit hard by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. (Photo/Eve Fraser-Corp via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)
San Francisco's Marina District was hit hard by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. (Photo/Eve Fraser-Corp via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

Like us, ancient Israelites divided time into ‘before’ and ‘after’ trauma

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Acharei Mot

Leviticus 16:1-18:30

In the two most recent parashahs, we’ve read about leprosy — or some leprosy-like disease — in various forms. First, we learned all about what this affliction could look like as a skin disease. Then, we learned that it might invade the walls of houses. Those two parashahs address, in detail, what the kohanim needed to do to diagnose this disease and how they might keep the community safe from contamination or contagion.

Then suddenly, we begin this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, with these words: “And God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they drew near before God, and they died.”

It is a jarring change of subject and a throwback to Leviticus Chapter 10 when Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought esh zarah, an offering that is deemed unacceptable. They were punished with a great fire that came from Adonai and literally “ate them,” incinerating them on the spot. At the beginning of this week’s parashah, we find ourselves faced, very matter of factly, with a reference to this stunning moment of trauma from a few chapters before. Presumably, the conflagration that swallowed up Aaron’s sons was witnessed by the community.

Sometimes, a traumatic event is communal. It becomes a defining moment, shared by all present. In the last few years, we have experienced communal moments of trauma. They are powerful, impactful and, sometimes, life changing. People say that when you experience a traumatic event, you remember very specific details. The event is seared into your mind.

On Oct. 17, 1989, I was 15. It was a hot fall day in San Francisco. I was wearing a pink skirt from the Gap and a yellow T-shirt. (It was the 1980s after all.) I walked home from school that day, stopping at Gelato Classico, the ice cream store that used to be on Chestnut Street. Unlike today, pumpkin flavored foods were a novelty and only available during a short fall season.

Since it was a hot day, I decided to treat myself to pumpkin gelato. It was delicious. I was just finishing up my cup of gelato when the 5:04 p.m. earthquake shook our Marina house hard, causing it to bang into the neighboring houses on either side. The 15-second jolt terrified everyone who felt it. It connected us all.

Sometimes, a moment of trauma is communal. It becomes a defining moment, shared by all present.

When the earthquake was over, I went outside with our dog, Dreydle, and started walking around the very broken streets that surrounded our house. Silt oozed up through the cracks. Suddenly, our little neighborhood of strangers became a space of shared experience. We all had something defining in common.

In a similar way, I can recall a lot of details about Sept. 11, 2001. I was living in New York City. I was still home, preparing to head to school, when the first tower was hit. I recall the first news report, the eerie silence across the city, the shared experience of pain and terror. We were all hurt, especially those of us in New York on that traumatic day.

Just a few months ago, we all lived through another moment of communal trauma: Oct. 7. An attack on all of us. A brutal act of terrorism. An unexpected and inexplicable day of violence. Each of us heard the horrifying news — as individuals and as part of a group bound together by the shared trauma. We were changed forever, together.

So, too, our Torah portion reminds us of an ancient shared trauma, experienced by the Israelites. The sudden horrifying-to-watch incineration of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, was a life-changing moment for the Israelites who experienced it. Our Torah portion begins (and is named) acharei mot, meaning “after the death.” That’s enough to invoke the clear moment of division. The Torah situates us firmly after the death of Nadav and Avihu. The story picks up after that impactful moment.

As we read those words this year, they feel different. This year, we read them following a traumatizing and defining moment in recent history, one which will divide our lives into “before” and “after” Oct. 7. That date reset the clock for Jews. Nothing has gone back to the way it was before. Nor will it. Forever more, we will date events “before Oct. 7” or “after Oct. 7,” distinguishing between our lives before the trauma of that day — and after. Time stopped then.

These moments exist in our communal story — and in our personal ones. The birth of a child, the death of a loved one, the divorce, the diagnosis, the conversation. Sometimes an event is so impactful that everything preceding it is permanently lifnei, before. And everything that follows is acharei, after.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.