Thursday, 02 May 2024

Written by Martina Loreggian, LBC rabbinical student

Acharei Mot, after the death.

Chapter 16 of Leviticus starts by recalling the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Their tragic and sudden death takes place immediately after the inauguration of the Mishkan, the tent of meeting. A joyous occasion is transformed into a shocking tragedy. Aaron remains silent, speechless, he is left with no words to utter. How could he? The God for whom they built a sanctuary to dwell in and meet His people, the God they were celebrating, had struck down his two sons with no understandable reason, other than they brought a ‘strange fire’.

Acharei Mot, after the death. I still remember precisely where I was when I was notified of the news of my mother’s death. I was in Milan, in my house. It was the 20th of May 2022. I had landed the day before, last day of the college’s year. It was a warm and sunny afternoon, and I was going to visit my mother for Shabbat that Friday evening, or at least the very next day. I hung up the phone after an important chat with a dear friend, when my mother’s care giver called me right after and said: your mother died 20 minutes ago. I cried and screamed, I ripped my t-shirt and then I stood up for a while in a state of shock, unable to move or speak.

Acharei Mot, after the death. In that precise moment I wanted the world to stop, the sun to be covered by clouds, the birds to end their cheerful singing. My mother was dead. The poet W. H. Auden writes:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,

Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,

Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Acharei Mot, after the death. Yet the world was still spinning, the sun was shining, and the birds were chirping. I could not stop life to go on with its cycle of light and darkness, day and night, joy and pain. But maybe I could stop my heart from feeling so much pain, lest it break into little pieces and never come whole again. Emily Dickinson writes:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Acharei Mot, after the death. And then I remembered: “I am coming there; I will see you in an hour”. I had obviously said to the care giver that I was going to my mother’s flat to take care of everything. I called my ex-wife and my dearest friends to say what happened and, I don’t know how, I drove to my mother house. I opened the door; I went to her bedroom.

Acharei Mot, after the death. Call the coroner, call the funeral home. Make a list of people you need to call because they need to know. Choose my mother’s dress, her shoes, things she will wear for the last time. Would you like flowers on the coffin? A cross also? Oh, she was not Christian. Maybe you should eat something, have some water and some rest. We cannot find a doctor, it is Friday evening, soon it will be Shabbat. Shabbat…

Acharei Mot, after the death. The Eternal spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal (Lev. 16:1). What follows are not words of consolation. It is a long and detailed list of instructions and recommendations for the ritual of Yom Kippur. The man who has just lost two sons in the most brutal way is instructed on how to atone for himself, his household and his people. I have always found this chapter of Leviticus problematic, if not cruel. And when my mother died, I felt so close to Aaron that I wanted to speak with him so we could comfort each other. And the Eternal spoke to Moses, not to Aaron: yes, God, don’t speak to us now, we are not able to listen, and we are not able to answer. We have been left with a heavy heart and speechless. Our dearest ones are no longer with us, You have taken them away from us and we are left lonely and mutilated, our heart is broken. Yet, we have duties to carry out, decisions to make and responsibilities to fulfil.  Only afterwards the pain will come again, and tears, and a time for prayer, and eventually a time for consolation.

Acharei Mot. After the death.

Martina Loreggian, LBC rabbinical student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.