“Acharei Mot”, “after the death”, are the two words that open this week’s Torah portion and the new chapter of Leviticus. I have spent a considerable amount of time wondering why the chapter dealing with the holiest day in the year and the holiest space in the place of worship started with the words “Acharei Mot.” The death referred to in the title is that of Aaron’s sons who died in Chapter 10. There is no obvious connection between their deaths and the directions that will be given to Aaron in this chapter. Why does the text deliberately add a sentence to connect the earlier event with the present moment?
As I carried this question in my mind, I started noticing all the places where death was apparent in my life. I noticed how many friends had recently lost relatives and were grieving. I thought of friends whose lives were changed by a terminal diagnosis. I thought of the people that I have loved and lost and miss. During this time that I was thinking about death, I have also been rehearsing for a play about a man facing imminent death who seeks truth in writing and in relationships. What is it about death that prompts him to engage with people in a way that connects to their own vulnerabilities and impacts their lives?
As an actress I am drawn towards acting moments of vulnerability and connection. Being in plays about challenging circumstances gives me a chance to live in these moments of relationship when the stakes are high and everything matters because death is in the room. It is not that I like suffering, but that when we face the reality of death as part of our lives, we live more intentionally. We seek meaning, we ask the big questions about life and talk about what is meaningful to us. Grieving brings into relief what is important to us, what and whom we have loved.
What if we could live a happy day with the same sense of importance, with the caring as we live the moments we encounter when we are around death or grief?
How would we live differently, if we could hold a sense of the fragility of life at the same time as we embrace life?
The Torah text prompts these questions when it brings death and mourning into view just as it asks us to envision Aaron’s moves through rituals of the holiest day in the holiest space. Perhaps the text is reminding us that death and mourning are a part of holy moments. Not because fear of death scare us into behaving a certain way, but because it is when we can care about someone else, when we lose that person, we can feel our hearts open to the love we hold for that person. When we can bring that love into the room with us we are one step closer to living a holier life.