“Acharei mot [after the death].”
This expression refers to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu after they “came near” (elsewhere: “brought strange fire”) before the Lord (see parashat Shemini). For some readers, I imagine, it’s a relatively simple chronology-determining statement: this happened after that. For people who have experienced a cataclysmic loss — the early death of a parent/care-giver, e.g., or the untimely loss of a partner — at some point in their lives, however, “after the death” can be a more powerful divisor: there’s pre-loss life, and then there’s life acharei mot: no simple ordering of narrative events; there’s a fundamental change in the person’s universe “after the death.”
For a long time, I believed that my own father’s death, when I was 16, was simply one of many elements that shaped my life. As I get older, however, I am more and more aware that I have experienced life in two distinct portions: the first 16 years of life in a family with my father, and acharei mot…. So, the title words of this week’s portion usually stop me cold.
This year, untimely loss in a friend’s family laid an even stronger focus on those words, as I watched another family struggle with figuring out how to manage life “acharei mot.” But this year I also noticed some interesting things about the other words that open this portion.
“Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei aharon…dabeir el-aharon achicha…”
The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother…
After the Death: God
It seems very unusual that “after the death” modifies God’s action. The more common “Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe [God spoke to Moses]” or “Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe lemor [God spoke to Moses, saying]” generally appear apart from any particular narrative or emotional context beyond the words God is imparting.
Occasionally in Genesis (15:1, 22:1), the narrative — including a speech-act by God — takes place “achar ha-devarim [after these things].” But these verses seem to stress the human (Abraham’s) experiences, not the context for God’s actions. And the human orientation is how I usually viewed the deaths of Nadav and Abihu — the experience of Aaron and Elisheva, Moses and Zipporah, Eleazar and Ithamar (the sons “left over“); the community’s experience of a leader-family’s grief.
But this year, I see it differently. “Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe acharei mot [God spoke to Moses after the death]” seems to stress the relationship of God’s speech to the death…and the relationship of God to the deceased and to the mourners.
Tell Your Brother
In addition to the placement of the “acharei mot” phrase, God addresses Moses in an odd way: “Tell your brother Aaron.” Not, “God spoke to Moses and Aaron.” Not, “Here are the rules for Yom Kippur which the priests must carry out.” Not any of the more standard formulations used in the Torah. Instead: “Tell your brother.”
Some commentary, noticing this oddity, says the idea was to stress that Aaron can’t go into the Holy of Holies, except on very particular occasions, even though he’s Moses’ brother, and Moses has more regular access to God. Some suggests God’s sensitivity to Aaron’s loss and his possible feelings of guilt in his sons’ deaths. What I read this year, though, is a little different….
I don’t think we can know what God is experiencing after a death — grief? celebration at a soul’s return? a Tralfamadorian-like “So it goes”? — but I think this text suggests that God is right there in it. God is speaking “after the death,” in some sort of acharei-mot-God-state, just like immediate mourners beginning to figure out how they’re going to manage life “after the death.” Gone, for just a moment, are the more imperious formulations of God’s speech and commandments for all and sundry: in its place, for just a moment, is the gentle, direct speech of one mourner to another: “Tell your brother….” this is how we’re going to begin, this life acharei mot.
(c) 2010, Virginia Avniel Spatz