This weeks Torah portion is found in the book of Leviticus, chapter 16 to 18:30. The portion contains the verses that are read on Yom Kippur afternoons, concerning the purity of the family and proper family relationships. However, the first words of the portion read, "And the Lord spoke unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the Lord, and died; And the Lord said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat." [Lev. 16:1-2]
There is a very important lesson in this first subject that the Torah deals with: you may recall that the two sons of Aaron died because they brought a "strange fire" to the altar. When they perished Moshe forbade his brother and his remaining sons to mourn -- they had to stay in the Tabernacle and continue to function as priests. They had to live with their loss and learn to get over it -- before they took time out to think about it and draw lessons from what happened. What do we learn from this?
A story is told of the Roman governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. It seems that he came to Jerusalem, placed the Roman eagle above the entrance to the Temple, and walked through the entire temple, including the Holy of Holies. He was wearing his sword at his side, and as he walked through the Holy of Holies it began to drip blood -- the blood of those innocent victims who were killed by Pilate for no reason. Yet Pontius Pilate walked out of the Temple without harm and continued to rule over the Jews and torture them.
The sages asked, "why did God have no pity upon Aaron's sons, and upon their father, when he took their lives for a "small infraction" -- while on the murderer Pilate, who was reputed to have crucified three thousand Jews on the road from Ceasaria to Jerusalem, He did not place even a little blemish?" They answered and said, "it is because Aaron's sons should have known better! Pilate was a killer -- it was his nature, his character, his essence of being. He was going to be punished through the eyes of history -- in what we call "Olam Haba -- the world to come." Aaron's sons were kohanim -- priests. They should have maintained the holiness of the place and lived by God's teachings, by mitzvot.
One asks, how did Aaron and his sons cope with their loss? How does one live on after the death of one's dear children, or one's siblings? Why did God do this to them? How could they continue to believe in Him, to serve Him? Obviously, they did not ask such questions. Obviously, they did not allow themselves to ask such questions. Life goes on -- and the dead cannot be brought back. If we lose faith as a result of their death then the death becomes even more damaging. Moshe told his brother, "give it some time" and life went on.
As soon as this Shabbat of Akharey-Mot is over, we shall begin to commemorate the martyrs of the Sho'ah -- the Holocaust. Yom Hasho'ah is an internationally recognized day of remembrance for the victims of the most heinous crime ever committed by men. Many people refuse to recognize the existence of God -- because of the Holocaust. They state categorically that "if there ever was a God, he died in Auschwitz." They continue to query the "justice" of a God that allows innocent children, as well as men and women, to be swept away from life into a vortex of death and oblivion at the hands of human butchers whose image and manners are similar to that of the victims.
What is the "image of God" in which man was created? Is it that of the martyrs or is it that of the perpetrators? If it is the first, how could the perpetrators look their victims in the eye? If it is the latter -- how can we continue to support the image of these horrible men and women who gave a new meaning to bestiality?
When the Second World War was over, when the camps were opened and exposed for all to see, the world recoiled in absolute and total horror. Soldiers who had fought battle after battle, who had seen their buddies killed by their sides and who suffered privations brought about by battlefield conditions stood speechless at the sight of the few remaining victims. The film news media came in and reported tom the world, and people chose to forget what they had seen as soon as they could. It is not as if the crime did not occur -- it is not as if it was not properly documented -- it is just that we needed time to put it into perspective. It was only in the fullness of time that we have began to examine the event and its ramification. It is only "akharey-Mot" -- after the death was a historical fact -- that we can begin to examine the cause and effect. It is only in the second generation that we can draw lessons from what happened and determine that we shall never again allow it to happen. We shall always be on guard from now on, we shall mingle a little sadness into every joyful celebration, we shall feel a void even when we are most complete -- we shall not forget.
However, we shall not fall victims to the sad memory. We shall not become perpetual mourners. We shall refuse to accept a life of morbid sadness and regrets. We shall not mark our lives by the deaths of another epoch. We shall live, we shall continue to grow, to learn, to create, and to celebrate life. We shall also continue to believe in God -- even as the martyrs believed. They knew that God had not neglected them, nor did he leave them. He was with them in their suffering, and He delivered their souls out of their suffering unto a world where death itself was vanquished. He shall, in His mercy, comfort us and heal our spirit -- and he shall give us the wisdom to make this world into a better place for the coming generations -- a place where holocausts cannot happen ever again.