Life After Death
by Jhos Singer
This week’s parasha, Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30), begins with the following crushing and enigmatic words:
“And The Mysterious One spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came close to the face of The Mysterious One, and they died.” (Leviticus 16:1)
This week has been rife with mystery, terror, loss and grief. On a local and personal level, our community lost one of our beloved teachers, Rabbi Steven Fisdel, z”l, who died last week. Rabbi Fisdel was a core faculty member of Chochmat Halev’s two cohorts of Jewish Meditation Teachers’ Training programs from 1999-2004. He touched many of our lives with his out of the box, mind-blowing meditation adventures, his command of Kabbalistic philosophy, his scholarship, and most of all, his passionate, infectious love for Jewish spirituality. For many, Reb Steve was a trusted spiritual advisor and guide. And for me, he became a colleague and a pal. He was funny and quirky, brilliant and sincere—a delightful combination of having his feet planted firmly on the ground while his head and heart played in the heavens. A wonderful musician, a wit, a wise man, and a mentsch, he will be sorely missed.
And on a less personal, but no less powerful, plane: we, along with caring people everywhere, grieve the loss of Lori Gilbert Kaye, who was shot and killed in this weekend’s latest act of domestic terrorism. Thank God the death toll was limited to one, but as the Talmud teaches:
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered that an entire world was destroyed. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if an entire world was saved.
(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a)
Every day worlds of lives are quashed or revived, and this week’s parasha gives us a little insight about how to focus our energy when there is loss.
Aaron is told which of his spiritual responsibilities to avoid and which to embrace. Aaron’s state is given special attention; his activities are to continue, but not in the normal manner. He is being supported and pushed into his new status as a bereaved father. He is also given new rights and responsibilities as a spiritual leader of his people. It is a hard, rigorous, powerful, painful, and bitter path. And it affects all of us to this very day. This is the parasha most Jewish communities read on Yom Kippur, and as such, this is the moment of our mythological past to which we return when we seek personal and collective transformation. How do we go on after a devastating loss? How do we continue when our hope has died? How do we find meaning in our lives when we are shattered?
After Aaron’s duties are delineated, the parasha continues in Chapter 17 with a long riff prohibiting the ingestion of blood, teaching us that “we cannot restore life that is lost.” Instead, we must let the biological symbol of life itself stand alone in the face of death. Which is to say: at some point, we have to accept that death is a thing—one we will all encounter, and one with which we must make peace.
I have no doubt our teacher Steve was at peace as he transitioned out of his body. He had practiced for that moment his entire adult life. I hope Ms. Gilbert Kaye was able to transcend out of her physical form with ease. What I don’t know is how will we use what time we have left here. Will we let ourselves be consumed with fear, hate, or anger? Will we grieve for the parents of a young man whose misguided and disturbed ideology turned him into a murderer? Will we step into the teachings of our teachers? Or will we fall into despair having lost our guide? Will we support each other through our rough patches? Or will we retreat into isolation when we are weak and scared?
I hope that these are the questions that we are trying to answer by being in community with each other. May we learn to be strong and vulnerable, broken and bolstered together. May the Source of all blessing comfort us, guide us, and support us as we make our way across the delicate, fragile, and oh so beautiful path we call life.