Since February, a determined and mighty group from the Beth Tzedec community has been studying a page of Tanakh every day. It is a small 929 day project. Currently we are in the middle of Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus.
Earlier this week, we studied the first chapter of parshat Aharei Mot, chapter 16, which is intimately connected to Yom Kippur, as it describes the High Priest’s Avodah service found in Musaf.
Before that narrative begins, we read the following words in verse 1:
"God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God."
Context was provided because a new reality was described.
For Moses, Aaron and perhaps the entire Israelite community, much changed after Nadav and Avihu died. There was lifnei, before, and then there was aharei, there was after.
Aharei Mot shnei b'nei Aharon, after his sons died, Aaron still performed his duties as Kohen Gadol, as High Priest, but he was not the same. Uncle Moses was not the same either. They all lived their lives in a world bereft of two special people.
Like the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, there have been so many events that altered our lives completely, which we can look at through the lens of before and after.
If we think about this holiday, Zman Matan Torateinu, the Time of the Giving of the Torah, there was a clear demarcation of daily life before and after Revelation.
Before the giving of the Torah, the people knew about God and experienced miracles, but once the people entered into a covenantal relationship, the terms of the relationship changed. The obligation to observe mitzvot were added on our end, and everlasting hesed and love was added on God’s end.
Lifnei and aharei—before and after.
In the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot, we find another example.
Ruth lives one phase of her life before she meets Naomi.
After she connects with Naomi, Ruth links her destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people. Famously, Ruth said to Naomi:
"For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God."
Life as she knew it completely changed after Ruth met Naomi and clung to her. It led to her meeting Boaz and then eventually the birth of King David.
If we fast forward to the last 100 years, Jewish life is clearly divided lifnei, before the death of six million Jews and aharei, after the Holocaust.
We still collectively grieve for all of the lives and communities lost.
Jewish life can also be viewed before 1948 and after. With the birth of the Jewish democratic state of Israel, for the first time since the year 70, we had a safety net.
Years from now, when we look back in history, the time we live in now will also be looked at through the lens of before and after.
One day, please God, this will be over and we will gather together in person for Yizkor.
But we have reached a new aharei mot. COVID-19 is a collective global event that impacts all of us. Nobody is immune. I yearn for other people to populate the pews again, but it won’t be the same.
To quote David Kessler, a foremost expert on grief, we are all dealing with grief with COVID-19, we are all dealing with collective loss of the world we knew. The world we knew is now gone forever. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.
This is a collective loss of the world we lived in before the pandemic. Like every other loss, we didn’t know what we had until it was gone.
If we are making the effort to tune in for Yizkor today, then we know about grief and we have been living our lives within this construct of lifnei and aharei mot since the death of our loved ones.
Some days are easier than others,but on a daily basis, we engage with the world aharei mot of our loved ones.
In so many small ways and large ways, our lives were forever changed after those we loved left the world.
In this aharei sphere, there are no phone calls, Shabbat dinners, Blue Jays and Raptors games, cottage conversations or big belly laughs at family jokes and lore.
We are left with trying to find ways to make meaning when we live in the aharei, left behind by our loved ones.
How do we come out the other side? How do we find meaning?
One of the ways we can find meaning is by remembering that the lives of our loved ones mattered and that we are better people because we had the honour of knowing them, living with them and loving them.
We can find meaning in how we honour their memories, like we are doing now.
Just like we want COVID-19 to be over instead of looking for silver linings, we would rather have our people back and healthy, instead of giving tzedakah and saying Yizkor for them, even if we know that can’t happen.
Over time, I pray that we can get to a place of gratitude, for the life of a person we got to know.
That our mother was our mother.
Our father was our father.
Our partner was our partner.
Our child was our child.
Our sibling was our sibling.
Our friend was our friend.
We are left with aching holes in this aharei reality.
Like those who came before us, we cannot go back to lifnei, to before, when we could touch our loved ones.
Instead we hold on to memories and pictures with love and sometimes we cry.
Leonard Cohen taught that there is a crack in everything, and that is how the light gets in.
Our task in this cracked aharei is to locate the light that our loved ones left behind for us, to help guide our way without them.
Shabbat shalom and hag sameah.