Friday night derasha given at on May 6th 2016, Parshat Aharei Mot, and nearly a year since Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s passing.
Shabbat Shalom everybody
בזאת יבא אהרון אל הקודש
A plausible reading of the first verse of our parsha presents us with an idea so shocking and counter-intuitive, that until it was pointed out to me, I had never thought to read the verse in that way:
אחרי מות שני בני אהרון בקרבתם לפני ה’ וימותו
And it was after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they came close to God, and died.
They came close to God… and died!
It’s worth noting the change of phrase from when the story of their deaths appeared in ‘real-time’ back in Parshat Shemini (Vayikra ch.10). There we were told of theאש זרה אשר לא צוה – of the strange fire offering which had not been commanded – a description allowing for a number of explanations for the demise of Nadav and Avihu. Yet in the re-telling six chapters later, the only detail provided by the verse is that they came close to God and died.
Although proximity to God is the religious ideal we seek our whole lives, coming too close, or coming close in an inappropriate manner – without a sense of limit, of proportion, of balance – is something that gets one killed.
As Icarus, flying so close to the sun that his wings melted causing him to fall to his death, that which enables and sustains our lives, can also end our lives when we venture too close.
Yet this is not at all what we would expect! For throughout most of the Torah’s narrative, Israel is warned of the very opposite: that it is distance from God, the refusal to listen to Him, the forgetting of Him, the following after foreign Gods, that leads to death.
השמרו לכם פן יפתה לבבכם וסרתם אחרי אלוהים אחרים והשתחוויתם להם וחרה אף ה’ בכם
Guard yourselves, lest your hearts turn away and follow after foreign gods and Gods anger will be aroused against you
The opening of Aharei Mot then introduces to us a chiddush: it is not only distance from God that leads to death, but also a certain kind of proximity.
Last year, in a small minyan in Jerusalem, I heard Dr Micah Goodman give a fascinating dvar Torah. Philosophers such as Talmon, who are interested in political theology, attempt to translate key themes from ancient religious texts into concepts and categories that are relevant to our modern lives.
Micah Goodman suggested that the twin ideas discussed above – of the dangers of being distant from God or of coming too close to God – are analogous to two central contemporary phenomena: post-modernism and fundamentalism.
To speak in broad brush strokes, prioritizing the essential idea over precise definition, post-modernism relativizes and diminishes all values and claims to truth while fundamentalism not only adopts a single truth but insists on the adoption of that approach at the expense of all others.
Post-modernism has become one of, if not the, dominant intellectual approach in the West. It’s really hard to argue against because whatever position you may advance against it can be countered by the response of ‘well that’s just your own partial, personal opinion’. But this strength is also its weakness: if all values are only subjective and everything is relative then its advocates can never truly put their belief in anything. There’s no longer anything to fight for, certainly not to die for. And so when it comes up against an ideology and group of people that really does believe what its saying, its defenses are greatly weakened. The postmodernist would always beat the fundamentalist in intellectual debate. But the postmodern society is in danger of collapsing when confronted by those who, not only believes in objective truth, but wish to impose it on others too.
This may be the great paradox of today: that the West’s post-modern post-religious relativist moment – it’s loss of faith in itself – has coincided with a rise elsewhere, of a vicious fundamentalism that absolutely believes what it says and uses violence to make its point.
It seems to me that a fundamental lesson is imparted by the opening lines of Aharei Mot. That the Torah is urging us to find a middle path, to be proud and passionate about our beliefs and values, letting them be the vision that propels us forward and around which we build our families, communities and society. But at the same time, realizing that all of our values have to be balanced by an appreciation of others.
We’ve been speaking about the death of the two sons of Aharon but this week I am thinking about a different Aharon – that of my great teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, whose first yahrzeit is this coming week. Rav Aharon taught us many things but if I was asked to highlight one anecdote that captured his personality and teaching it would be the following.
A number of years ago I sat in on a question and answer with Rav Lichtenstein with some visiting high school students from Manchester. One asked the obvious question for an eighteen year old formulating his gap-year plans, ‘what is it that makes your yeshiva unique?’ After a few moments of insisting that there were many wonderful yeshivot to choose from, Rav Lichtenstein came up with the following formulation about what he hoped characterised Yeshivat Har Etzion. There is a tension, he explained, between two values: complexity and passion. Complexity entails being able to see multiple sides to an issue – the understanding that no single perspective captures the whole truth, that our own deeply held convictions will not necessarily be shared by others, for perfectly valid reasons. Passion entails a sense of absolute commitment to a cause, a love and determination to see a task through, to be bound up totally in one’s belief.
Passion does not naturally lead to complexity for passion is far easier to engender when one views the critical issues as black and white – when you are right, and the other is wrong. Complexity does not naturally lead to passion, for an appreciation of multiple angles and perspectives can leave one disinclined to commit to any single perspective. Said Rav Lichtenstein, his hope for the unique character of the yeshiva is that a synthesis is attained between passion and complexity – not a lukewarm halfway house, which pays lip-service to one without truly fulfilling the other, but a true and deep combination; to be as passionate as possible on the one hand, and as sensitive to nuance and complexity as possible on the other.
On hearing or reading these words an understandable response is that such a fusion is admirably idealistic, yet in practise unattainable. We all know in ourselves that we often achieve one of these values at the cost of the other. Yet all who came into contact with Rav Aharon recognised in him an exquisite balance of the two. I have never met someone as passionate as Rav Lichtenstein, nor anyone as complex as him, with such an ability to appreciate multiple sides of an issue, not only in the study of a sugya, but when engaged in public debate or helping a student address a delicate and personal issue.
Rav Aharon is no longer. Who are the people who are going to be able to continue this vision? Only us. Both his actual students and his ideological community. Especially we who are members of a university, actively engaged in the debates and discussions of our society involving so many sides to each argument, yet passionately committed to our tradition and our values. Unwilling to compromise between passion on the one hand and nuance and complexity on the other.
בזאת יבא אהרון אל הקודש