Magazine article Tikkun

Aaron's God-And Ours

Magazine article Tikkun

Aaron's God-And Ours

Article excerpt

Last fall, I was asked to share my thoughts on the Torah portion (parsha) for Yom Kippur at my synagogue's High Holiday services. I said yes without quite remembering what the parsha was about, and when I opened my Chumash to refresh myself on Leviticus 16, it momentarily knocked the wind out of me.

No scholar of Torah, I am the most typical of contemporary Jews-raised in a secular environment by parents who retained a strong cultural attachment to Judaism while thoroughly rejecting its religious teachings. Though I had been indoctrinated into Judaism through compulsory attendance at Sunday school as a child, before joining my current shin I had not spent serious time in a synagogue since I was thirteen and my parents offered me my freedom (sans bat mitzvah) from even this token Jewish commitment.

Like many of us set free as children from religious strictures our parents (legitimately) found confining, I have spent much of my life trying to reinvent a spiritual framework spacious enough and subtle enough to lend context and meaning to my life's joys and sorrows. Not until well into my adulthood did it even occur to me to look for it in Judaism. And like many liberal secular Jews raised to read religious texts literally and suspiciously, I have found that the most daunting stumbling block in my return to Judaism has been the Torah itself and specifically the image of a harsh, judgmental, petty, abusive, and quixotic God that springs from many of its pages. I read with anger and incomprehension as the God of Torah time and time again seems to engage in senseless acts of murder and cruelty. My visceral response is "this is not the God I know."

The Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur-Leviticus 16-is one of those passages. This parsha must be read in the context of an earlier portion, Leviticus 10, which tells us that God killed two of Aaron's sons right before Aaron's eyes, because in their offering of incense during an elaborate ritual involving animal sacrifices they somehow "offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them." Though commentators have offered numerous explanations of what "alien" or "strange fire" might actually have been, and how it could have caused these deaths, these explanations are oddly lacking in conviction-the commentators themselves appear baffled by these deaths. In Leviticus 11 through 15, God not only makes no comment upon Aaron's loss, but lectures Moses and Aaron on the dietary laws and laws of purification. And Aaron-except for refusing to eat the meat of the animal slaughtered when his sons died-has also been silent. Then in Leviticus 16, God invites Aaron to return to God's presence to atone for his sins and the sins of his household, and gives elaborate instructions about how to bathe and dress for the occasion, what animals to sacrifice, and how exactly the sacrifices should be offered.

In this parsha is just about everything that I find repugnant in Torah, and yet it is the reading we are called to attend to on the holiest day of the year.

I have learned not to gloss over the kinds of discomfort that texts like this engender in us, but to use that discomfort to reengage the texts with fresh eyes. In particular, I have taken to heart Rabbi Michael Lerner's advice that we find in Torah both the true voice of God speaking profoundly and timelessly through the human beings who wrote the Torah and also the distortions of God's voice that these human writers introduced-distortions that are inevitable products of the times and cultures in which these writers lived and the personal pain and limitations they were subject to.

So how do we tease out the true voice of God in this parsha? If we know a loving and compassionate God who invites us into partnership with Him in the ongoing, unending task of creation, where is God's voice in these instructions to Aaron, his grieving priest, about how safely to approach Him in the wake of a searing and inexplicable loss for which Aaron holds Him responsible? …

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