Acherei Mot-Kedoshim: Travel Far to Draw Near

Rachel is with IfNotNow DC.

In this double parasha, we are told of the ancient rituals for atonement that became Yom Kippur, laws about blood and sexual relationships, and the code for holiness. The parasha begins with the words: “And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near the Lord and died.” Why mention the death of the sons of Aaron when it happened five chapters prior?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz asserts in his commentary on the Torah that the Midrash provides many possible explanations for the harsh punishment meted out to Aaron’s sons. The one Steinsaltz focuses on relates to the phrase “when they drew near to the Lord.” The sin of Aaron’s sons was not that they were far from God, but rather that they had drawn too near. As Steinsaltz puts it: “The cause of the sin was overfamiliarity with God and his Service.”

For the average Israelite, the ancient priestly rites would have been filled with mystery, but for the sons of Aaron, who performed these rites every day, the routines and everything that went on in priestly service were banal. Aaron’s sons had drawn so near to God that they became lazy and jaded. They brought their strange fire in arrogance, believing that nothing could move them from the place they occupied, forgetting its holiness and their own.

And indeed, those who are flung the farthest from the bosom of community in the Torah are those who return to make the most impactful change. Abraham leaves his home in Ur of the Chaldees in order to go forth for himself and receive God’s blessing. Jacob flees his father’s house in fear of his brother and takes a journey in which he obtains spiritual insight and a new name, which becomes the patronymic of our people. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, goes to Egypt and makes himself great, ultimately returning to the family that rejected him in triumph. Elijah flees to the mountains after crossing the pagan queen Jezebel, before he hears the still, small voice that rescues the people from their wicked leaders. And Moses, of course, lives in the palace of Pharaoh, oppressor of his people, before leading the Israelites to their freedom.

Marc Chagall, ‘Over Vitebsk’ 1913–1914 Depicts the prophet Elijah over the town of Vitebsk as he wanders the earth.

I don’t often tell personal stories, but when I first began my political journey away from Zionism and “Israel right or wrong,” it was bitter and painful for me because I no longer fit inside the boundaries of Jewish community. Shallow celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut, flag waving, and falafel tasting began to make me nauseous (ok, so it was really bad falafel, not just bad politics). I began to realize that our political conversations took place within narrow boundaries and that so many voices were missing, especially those of Palestinians. The more I learned, the farther away I felt.

I found a place for myself on the pro-Palestinian left. They welcomed me and saw me as a sister in their struggle. They held me when I cried in frustration and anger and challenged me to get real about what a just world might look like. In New York City, there were radical artists, activists, scholars, and poets organizing events, film screenings, book readings in tiny lefty spaces in the East Village about Palestine. It was not at all easy for me and when people spoke harshly, I felt ashamed. But we had these deep discussions about everything — race, militarism, feminism, sex, antisemitism, Jewish history. I learned about the history of Jews in the labor movement and about the Israeli Black Panthers from them. Through them, I joined the International Solidarity Movement, spending school breaks in the West Bank. I met farmers trying to hold on to their land, people who chose to live with such open-heartedness in spite of having been forced into arbitrary prison sentences, sometimes at very young ages. Getting to know my Palestinian sisters, these exceptionally tough, outspoken, loving mamas and daughters, taught me about living with dignity in the worst of circumstances. In Palestinian women, I saw my own ancestresses, the Jewish women who pulled their families through pogroms, who stretched meals and refused to mince words, all for the sake of the next generation. My interest in a political issue turned to empathy, for their lives and lost communities. I vowed to do everything I could to help them.

In this parasha, there are many verses that have resulted in Jews being alienated from faith and community. The words in Leviticus 18:22, (you can look it up), which has been interpreted to prohibit same-gender relationships, is chief among them. How many Jewish families over the centuries have sat shiva for their beautiful, living children in purporting to adhere to this verse? How many Jewish families to this day send their children to abusive conversion therapy programs on the advice of rabbis and community leaders?

It is the people at the margins who come back and teach us how we have done wrong. It feels like rejection now — the taunts we get, the accusation that we are naive, the assertion that our elders know so much more than we do. But it is only through the pain and suffering of distance that we can gain perspective and put this principle into action. Once we gather together, it is then that we can collectively atone as a healthy Jewish community: acknowledge the wrongdoing of the past and demand a better future.

We have a lot of work to do to transform our Jewish community. But if you have felt the way I have felt, that you have been flung far away, know that when you return, you will have tremendous lessons to teach. I look forward to sitting at your feet. Shabbat shalom.