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Between Death and Death

Aharey Mot
Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30

Between Death and Death

This d'var Torah is driven by the context in which I write it. In the last month, I have been surrounded by death and disease. The news headlines have been about the Pope's approaching death, the battles surrounding Terry Schiavo, and now their deaths. The aunt who has become a mother figure to me since my own died was diagnosed with cancer, operated on, and is now recovering. Things look good. My partner’s father died last week after a long illness. And I learned that I have not just a physical quirk but a problem for the rest of my life that is probably not serious but has the potential to be (Raynaud’s Syndrome). So in the last few weeks I rocketed through grief and terror to rest at vigilance and acceptance.

And though it is spring by the calendar, but barely the end of winter here in Michigan. It is April, snow is predicted, but the first crocuses are blazing gold.

The week as I write this is Parshat Shemini, in which Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons are killed as they bring strange fire before Yahweh. Their bodies are dragged outside the camp by their coats. Aaron and his other sons are told not to mourn. And the matter is dropped, not to be mentioned again until Parshat Aharey Mot, when we are reminded of the deaths of Aaron’s two sons.

The two parashiot that fall between, Tazri'a and Metzora, are filled with life cycle issues with death as their bookends. Tazri’a instructs us how to deal with childbirth, circumcision, and disease. And Metzorah continues on with the problems of disease (in humans and houses) and male and female sexual emissions.

And that is the human condition. Not all of it, of course, but certainly birth, sex, disease, decline, and death are in the cards for all of us. Aharey Mot moves quickly from the deaths of Aaron’s sons to the rules for sacrifices. And that makes sense in this context -- turning to religion to deal with the joys and sorrows, to share our life cycles with our community. Services at my shul this week involved a baby naming, bar mitzvah, the presence of the bar mitzvah’s recently deceased uncle, a countdown to Pesah, and a community to bind them and us together. So let me close with a poem on this theme.

Your Grandfather

Your grandfather
is a barber
from the Old Country.
He cuts your hair
in the basement
on Sunday afternoons.

Only you two together,
hands on head
and the snipping
of the scissors.
The scissors,
a time piece,
cutting off your seconds
from each other,
seconds shearing off lives.

You go on
(long after your grandfather dies)
with the memory of those afternoons --
so many cut off seconds
fallen on your shoulders.

On the floor.

Ellen Dannin, a member of the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Havurah and Congregation Beth Israel, teaches at Wayne State University Law School.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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