Kubler-Ross and the Kohen Gadol

Kubler-Ross and the Kohen Gadol

Originally Posted May 6, 2022 at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/kubler-ross-and-the-kohen-gadol/

There is a truism that we don’t speak ill of the dead.  In Judaism that truism is anchored in the fact that the two weekly portions Aharei Mot and Kedoshim are often joined as a “double” parsha.  “After death – holies.”  Usually this is understood as meaning that after someone dies, we say holy words – words of comfort and praise, not criticism or conflict.  But I think perhaps it can also refer to action: after death, we do holy deeds.

Spring term 2022 was a rough semester.  I taught the course I teach every spring at the University of Pittsburgh, called “Death and the Healthcare Professions.”  It’s a real platypus of a course, bringing in literature, philosophy, law, clinical medicine, and religion in an effort to understand how we treat death in an over-medicalized America.  It’s a challenging class in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.  We started the semester virtually, during the Omicron outbreak – in fact, I first noticed myself coming down with Omicron while preparing my course materials for the semester.  Even after things eased, there was not a single week where I didn’t have at least one student stay back from class out of fear of infecting their classmates.  There were multiple students who lost family members during the semester, students who ended up in the hospital, a major international war, and unspeakably tragic local news packed into these last sixteen weeks.  As I write this I am taking a break from grading final exam questions, and wondering how some of my students made it through this material under these circumstances.  Today Dr. Fauci opined that we are out of the pandemic phase of the COVID-19 experience.  It sometimes feels like we have passed into the pandemic phase of the sky falling.

Aharei mot, kedoshim.  In the wake of loss, do holy things.  My students spend one of our 150-minute sessions discussing how people react to a loss, either their own impending death or the loss of a loved one.  The seminal work on the subject, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ On Death and Dying, is often misunderstood as presenting five stages of grief which progress in linear succession: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.  The foundation that bears Kubler-Ross’ name today spends a good deal of time combatting that misconception; these are phenomenalogic descriptions of a person’s mindset at any given time, mindsets that we often cycle through multiple times on a me:andering journey from loss to reintegration.

My teacher Erica Brown, in her book Happier Endings, simmers these five stages down to three: denial, which subsumes anger, bargaining and depression within it, as variations on the theme of not being ready to come to terms with the loss; resignation, the realization of both the reality of the loss and our powerlessness to change it; and inspiration, the willingness to ask, “What’s next?” even in the face of the reality of the loss.  Brown contends that the acceptance stage in Kubler-Ross feels like it’s unfinished.  To continue living after a loss we can’t merely accept its finality – we have to see a new life that grows and flourishes even though the person we have lost has passed from it.

There’s a lot of work that must happen to get there.  The last time we heard words from Aharon before this week’s parsha was in Vayikra 10:19, and he was definitely still working through the Kubler-Ross stages.  After Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, die in front of the altar, his first reaction is stunned silence (Vayikra 10:3).  It’s hard to know whether this is denial, depression or immediate acceptance of Moshe’s off-the-cuff theodicy; he says nothing at all.  Vayidom Aharon, “and Aharon was silent.”

In 10:19, however, there is no question where Aharon is.  He is Angry.  Moshe has just criticized him for his handling of the sin offering, and gotten on Aharon’s last nerve.  He is raw, he has held his tongue long enough, and now his brother with the legendary temper is about to get a taste of his own medicine.

“See, this day they (my emphasis – Aharon means Nadav and Avihu) brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before Hashem and look what has befallen me (they are dead)!  If I had eaten the sin offering today (as you said I should have), would Hashem have approved?” Aharon complains.  What difference does my righteous behavior make?  Do I perhaps deserve to be (as my rav, Rabbi Seth Adelson likes to say) schmeisted just like they were?  Is that what you want, brother dear, who needed to put my sons’ deaths “in context” theologically a mere one verse after they lay hollowed out and smoking on the ground?  Keep your damn context, Mo.  This God of ours makes no sense.

And Moshe approved (Vayikra 10:20).

By Aharei Mot, three weeks plus the two Shabbatot of Pesach later, Aharon has his stuff together again.  And in this instance, aharei mot, kedoshim.  He can no longer go into the holy precinct behind the curtain at will – his world has changed.  In my IDF service they used to tell us, “These rules are written in blood,” meaning that the annoying procedural safeguard they were teaching us was put there because before it was implemented, someone didn’t do the thing and died.  Hashem is writing Aharon and his descendants out of danger.  But Hashem is not the only one changing from this incident.

Aharon dresses in the linen tunic, breeches, sash and turban that become the garments of the Kohen Gadol for all time.  But they are not only destined to be priestly garments – they are the clothes we place on our dead before we bury them.  While the usual understanding of this is that we honor our deceased by placing these sacred garments on them, the rule that there is no before and after in Torah allows us another possibility – having seen his sons’ lives cut short, Aharon dresses in this garb and is keenly aware that he, too, is mortal, that one day he will remove his priestly outfit, dress in another which is outwardly the same and yet altogether different, and be laid to rest forever (Bamidbar 20:26-8).  If so, he has work to do in the meantime.

Aharon has a choice before him.  It falls to him, as the Kohen Gadol, to make amends not only on his own behalf, but for his own whole household, presumably including Nadav and Avihu, and for the entire people.  To do so, he has two goats – one for God, and one the original, archetypal “scapegoat” for Azazel.  Which one will he sacrifice, and which will he let go?

Again, the “no before and after” rule is helpful here.  Today, we understand the English word “scapegoat” to mean someone or something that we blame all of our problems on even though they really aren’t responsible for any of those problems.  Think Superman being blamed for Lex Luthor’s carefully laid plot in Batman vs. Superman, Hermione Granger’s cat being accused of eating Ron’s rat in the third Harry Potter novel, or the Jews, pretty much in every country in any era throughout history.

Let’s assume that the scapegoat, the se’ir l’Azazel, meant the same thing in biblical times.  The striking thing is that in this parsha, Aharon lets the scapegoat go free.  He doesn’t sacrifice the scapegoat, doesn’t kill the whipping boy to atone for everyone’s sins, he releases it.  Even in the later verse, 16:21, where he sends it to an ish iti, a “man of the hour,” in the wilderness, the text does not say explicitly that the guy kills the goat, though we are taught elsewhere that it is ultimately pushed off a cliff.  Aharon kills the one for God.  Aharon is responsible for the atonement himself, on behalf of the people and the member of his own household who are also guilty, and he doesn’t attempt to off the scapegoat to deflect the blame.  Angry Aharon might have been tempted, but this is a new Aharon, one aware of his own fragility and his own imperfection, and that of his sons whom he loved.  He cannot bring them back, so he has to move forward, and in a constructive direction, not one where he tries to shirk responsibility for his behavior.

If the story ended here, though, it wouldn’t be enough.  This is Aharon in Erica Brown’s “resignation” phase, recognizing the reality, having the maturity to know it cannot be otherwise.  He is ready to accept, but not yet to excel.  That part comes later, two parashiyot from now, in Emor, where Aharon gets to rise to the greatest challenge of all for the grieving father: joy.  Because in Emor, the commandments concerning the Festival sacrifices are given, a parade of sacrifices given not out of guilt and remorse, but out of jubilation and exhilaration.  The constant parade of animals on Sukkot, the bounty of fruits on Shavuot, the first new grain of the year the morning after Pesach – these are the celebrations that test a “resigned” individual’s ability to live again.

It’s an odd time.  In the past 8 days we have observed both Yom HaShoah, remembering the horrors of the Holocaust, and Yom HaZikaron, remembering the high price in human life paid for Israel’s existence.  It’s 3 ½ years on the English calendar since the Tree of Life shooting, and 3 years exactly since Poway.  It is two years and counting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which may finally be winding down, and at least a decade into the opioid epidemic which shows no signs of abating.  My regular readers know I have been doggedly looking for the spots of joy in this heavy world, the weddings and celebrations and sunrises and puppies that allow Shoah survivors, shooting survivors, sickness survivors to want to live well again – that allow me to want to live well again.  Yet every wedding seems to be chased by a bout of melancholy, every concert with a new COVID infection, every celebration with yet another screw coming loose from the infrastructure of our lives.  And seemingly every column I write circles back to a theme that the late great Rabbi Abraham Twerski used as the title of a book that he wrote with Charles Schultz, When Does the Good Stuff Start?

There was a dark time like this in our family 21 years ago.  I was sitting in shul one Saturday morning in May, 2001 when my father walked into the service, which was odd as we daven in different places most weeks.  I got up enthusiastically to greet him but stopped cold when I saw how ashen his face was.  “Richard died,” he said.

My cousin Richard Harris, Dr. Harris, Radio Rich to his high school friends, had died suddenly less than an hour earlier, and the family were slowly gathering at his home a few blocks away.  For the next week we held each other close, our extended clan leaning on each other in this time of shock at our still-young, larger than life Richard being no more.  Yet when we all got up from the shiva, the very first thing I did was attend a Bat Mitzvah rehearsal.  Just months later, the words I spoke in his hesped about the symbolism of a little black medical bag became the guiding principle in my new reality as a third-year medical student at the same medical school he had once attended, and then taught at.  One Saturday night in December nearly a decade later, his name was spoken in reverence by our cousin, Rabbi Jeffrey Schein (Cousin Rabbi for short – I’m Cousin Doctor) under the chuppah as he officiated at the marriage of Richard’s daughter Ilene to Jacob.  And at Pesach-time in 2010, Richard’s name, and the name of his dear mother-in-law, Edith Casar, were bestowed on Jacob and Ilene’s new daughter, Rafaela Edeet.

Rafaela, who this past Shabbat became a Bat Mitzvah in Birmingham, AL.  In her d’var Torah, she spoke about the subject of tzniut, modesty, and her decision to adopt that value for her own – when she was six years old.  Importantly, though, Rafa took a broad view tzniut.  It’s not just about clothing, about covering yourself in a certain way, but a whole mindset.  She spoke of tzniut in our consumption, in our words, in our deeds.  And in the context of what we’re discussing, I knew exactly what she meant.

Those garments that Aharon put on were tznu’im, modest garments.  Not because of what they covered, but because they were plain, white linen garments replacing gold and purple clothes of religious royalty.  Because they removed the veil from our mortality and acknowledged that we are finite, limited beings before an Infinite One.  Because he was getting dressed to do the work of admitting that he, his household and his people were imperfect and needed to atone for their missteps.  He was the second most powerful person in a roving nation of millions, and he stripped himself down to the bare essence.

Aharei mot, kedoshim.  We do holy things after a death, and there are few things in Judaism holier than the birth of new children, bringing loving couples together under the chuppah, healing the sick, bringing young people into the covenant of Torah – and revering our parents (and grands and great-grands) and keeping the Shabbat, the very first examples of holiness listed in Vayikra 19:3, and the very core of what Rafa did last weekend.  Aharon reached the stage of inspiration when tasked with the challenge of celebrating the great festivals of Israel.  We reach it each time we give ourselves over to the joys of the life cycle and of our life’s work, and don’t wallow in placing blame or looking backward.  We reach it today, when we follow our dark days of mourning with a celebration of our survival and independence for the first time in two millenia.

We may all be going the way of Aharon, all destined to don those white linen shrouds one day.  I just washed my kittel, the white robe worn on certain occasions during life that mark transitions, like marriage, the High Holidays, and burial.  One that people often forget about, though, is Pesach, where there are traditions that the leader of the seder should wear one.  My friend Nathan Bahary, an oncologist whose dark sense of humor is a necessary tool for a guy who in a bad week may tell a dozen new people they are terminally ill, likes to joke with his daughters at seder that he’s wearing the clothes he’s going to be buried in – and I like to think as I’m laundering mine that I’m doing it so I don’t go to Gan Eden with wine stains on my robe.  Yes, we may also be going the way of Aharon, but that way travels the path of joy, the path of healing, the path of Torah – the paths that are the whole reason God put us here at all, even if God didn’t put us here to stay forever.

This d’rasha is written in honor of my cousin Rafaela Edeet Kosoff becoming a Bat Mitzvah, and in loving memory of her namesakes: her grandfather Dr. Richard Harris, for whom I was honored and humbled to deliver a hesped, a eulogy, in 2001, and her great-grandmother Edith Casar.  May their memories, and her bright future, be for a blessing to us all.

Dr. Jonathan Weinkle

Dr. Jonathan Weinkle is an experienced primary care physician seeking to fix our broken healthcare system by returning the focus to the relationship between human beings. His new book, Healing People, Not Patients, gathers together ancient wisdom, medical science, and the experiences of one doctor to draw a portrait of a partnership—a medical covenant—not just between doctor and patient, but also including receptionist, nurse, transporter, and radiology technician.

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