D’var Torah: Parshat Acharei Mot – A Pathway to Change
Out of the many challenges that COVID has brought, one benefit is that many fitness apps are now available for free. This d’var Torah is not a review of those apps except to say, you should try one! Today, on my run, the instructor on one of my newfound apps shouted out, “humans are imperfect.” By this, she meant: your body has limits and some workout days are better than others. This is a tolerable imperfection. But what happens when our imperfections cause others pain or when those of the world cause mass trauma, similar to what we are seeing today with COVID?
We have confronted some serious difficulties in the world over these past couple months. Some of these realities include the racial disparities in COVID survival rates, skyrocketing unemployment, and having to choose between personal freedom and the greater good. Through these lenses we have had to confront mortality and the ethics of life and death. Acharei Mot claims that the reflection that often comes with confronting death should motivate us to become better people and create a better world.
The parsha opens with a reminder of Aaron’s loss of his two sons and then immediately transitions into the public expiation observances of Yom Kippur. While it feels cruel to associate a loss like this with instructions for atonement, I believe that connecting these two things provides some broad principles for how we need to confront our most difficult challenges and move forward ready for change.
First, introspection is a year-round endeavor. The fact that we read this parsha six months prior to Yom Kippur signifies that we must constantly be asking ourselves, do I have a habit of self-examination? Are we building a culture of reflection in our communities?
Second, our actions cannot be guided by self-interest alone. Aaron atones not just for himself but also for his household and the broader community. The midrash teaches that the High Priest must have a family because he needs to understand the importance of other people’s hopes and dreams. Leaders must understand the sacred responsibility of what is at stake for their constituents. Are we demanding that our leaders truly understand the burden of this responsibility?
Next, we learn that everything is flawed, even our institutions. Aaron is not allowed in the sanctuary, at the site of the death of his sons, because the sanctuary was also subject to human error. Are we looking into how systems and institutions contribute to stagnancy at best and cruelty at worst?
Finally, and most importantly, Aaron atones for himself before everyone else. The definition of a leader is someone who admits when they have done something wrong. Are we leading by example and asking others to do the same?
God does not demand perfection – not in our morning workout or in our everyday lives. We are, however, asked to never stop striving for improvement. If we can continuously ask what have we learned from this situation and what can be done to move forward in a more positive direction, perhaps we can begin to emerge out this difficult time and into a better, healthier new reality. Shabbat Shalom.