April 16, 2020


4.17.2020 Weekly Torah Portion

It’s week four or five for many of us.  The length of days and nights is settling in.  I’m feeling waves crashing against my body – emotional waves, mostly of fear and anger and, almost begrudgingly, moments of joy.  Every feeling is exaggerated, extenuated, extra.  It’s overwhelming.  One day at a time becomes one hour at a time, sometimes becomes five minutes at a time.  What I need now, as this pandemic plods on, is resilience.  The resilience to face this question over and over again: Will I pick up a bottle or pick up the phone?  Will I hide or will I let my overwhelm, my fear, my anger be seen?

One moment.  A choice.  Another moment.  Another choice.

In this week’s parasha, Shemini, Aaron faces this very question – not once, but twice.  First: he is called up to his position as High Priest during the dedication of the mishkan, that wonderful tent where God will dwell among the people.  And according to one rabbinic story, at the moment he is called up to what his whole life has been building towards, Aaron hesitates.  He doesn’t run up to serve God as Moses tells him: “Draw near to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering” (Leviticus 9:7).  Instead, he hesitates because he’s afraid.

The rabbinic story teaches that Aaron perceives the (horned) altar as an ox – an enormous, powerful animal that could kill him in one movement.  What a sight!  Aaron is scared.  He freezes – maybe he wants to run away, hide from this High Priest gig, from his calling, from God.  But when Moses sees Aaron’s fear, Moses says: “My brother, don’t be afraid — ‘Draw near’ (Leviticus 9:7).  Embolden yourself and draw near to God.”  Moses witnesses Aaron’s fear and helps him to see that he has a choice: yes, you can run, but you can also become bold, and draw near.   Aaron chooses to draw near.

But less than a chapter later, Aaron is confronted with another choice.

Second: His sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring what is called a “strange fire” to God’s altar.  Because of this “strange fire,” God’s fire consumes them.  It’s a disturbing story that evokes many commentaries about why they are killed and what sort of strange fire they brought, but I don’t think those commentaries matter to Aaron.  What matters to Aaron is that his sons are dead, and the very God that Aaron chose to serve kills them.  Aaron is grieving (some of you know this pain intimately).

Aaron expresses his pain first with silence (Leviticus 10:3).  And shortly after, when Moses challenges him and his two other sons for a mistake in their performance as priests, Aaron defends his actions with anger: “See here!  This day they [the Israelites] brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before Adonai, and such things have befallen me!  Had I eaten the sin offering today [while I was in mourning] would Adonai have approved!?” (Leviticus 10:19).  Aaron is angry.  He has every reason to say: “F* this.  I’m out. You took everything from me.  And now you’re wanting me to do what?!  Find yourself another High Priest.”  He has every reason to opt out and pick up.

But Aaron again chooses to stay.  Even in grief, in pain, in silence, in anger, Aaron chooses again to draw near to God, to his brother Moses, to the Israelites.  As we say at Beit T’Shuvah, Aaron chooses to “f*ck his feelings.”

This is the very choice before each of us: With all my big, exaggerated, extenuated, extra feelings brought on by COVID-19, will I hide from what’s happening in booze and drugs and sex (or whatever my addictions might be)?  After all, the pandemic is a really legitimate reason to pick up right now, right?  The fear?  The pain?  The anger?  The grieving for life as it was?  The money troubles?  The isolation?

Or will I draw near to supportive friends, strangers, and God?

Each and every day, even every hour, even every five minutes, we are confronted with that choice and these Corona-inspired justifications to run and hide.  Our justifications, of course, have always been there, but now they too are exaggerated, extenuated, extra.  What will you choose today, right now?

Choosing to draw near over and over is resilience.  And resilience is what we need right now.  It’s what I need.

Aaron chooses to draw near again and again because he knows that his fate is wrapped up with that of the Israelites, with that of Moses, even with God’s own fate.  As much as he would love to be a supremely independent being – doing what he wants as his feelings move him – he knows that he is supremely interdependent, relying on the Israelites, on Moses, on God, not only for his survival, but for the very freedom for which he left Egypt.  Without that freedom, he is just another slave back in Egypt.  Without choosing to draw near to supportive friends, strangers, and God, I am just another slave to addiction.

Resilience is choosing to draw near.  Yesterday, today, tomorrow.  This five minutes and the next five minutes.

“Near” may feel farther than it normally does.  It’s only far in distance.  In time, in access, it’s right here.

Beit T’Shuvah, AA, Refuge gatherings are available to you – with the click of a mouse, or the tap of a touchscreen, in pajamas, in bed, in darkness, in light, or at any hour of the day.  When you want to hide, to run – to disappear into Netflix, and video games, and booze, and sex, or wherever you go to forget that pervasive fear and anger – Moses says to us: Draw near.  Embolden yourself.  Yesterday, today, tomorrow.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Kerry