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Aaron and entering into vulnerability

If you numb yourself to prevent hurt and disappointment, you negate the possibility of joy, gratitude, and happiness too (Acharei Mot)
Illustrative. Nadab and Abihu. (Wikipedia)
Illustrative. Nadab and Abihu. (Wikipedia)

For his military service, a man served on a submarine that regularly used Morse code. He became a respected expert able to quickly send and decipher messages.

Sadly, after completing his navy service, away from strict military protocols, he fared less well. He was let go from a good job in civilian life because of a gross misunderstanding.

Not sure what to do next, he saw the army was looking for a Morse code specialist, and he decided to apply. He was told to come anytime between 10:00 a.m. and 12 noon and he arrived at 11:50 a.m.

At the office, he saw a waiting room full of applicants and a secretary at a desk in front of an inner room that was empty except for an interviewer quietly reading to herself. The man sat down and listened to the music playing in the background for a few minutes. Then he got up and approached the inner office door. The secretary stopped him, “Sir, there are many people waiting in line ahead of you,” he said. “Wait your turn.” The man hesitated, remembering how he had just lost a job through a misunderstanding, but then he continued onward into the inner room.

The interviewer in that room immediately got up, went out to the waiting room and told everyone, “Thank you all for coming. You can go home, we have chosen someone.” Those in the waiting room called out in unison, “It isn’t fair. This man came in last. Why did you interview him before us?” The interviewer replied, “Did you not pay attention to the music? It was in Morse code, and it was saying: “if you’ve come for the interview, just walk through the door and come in. Even if the secretary tells you to wait, just go straight to the inner room.” [1]

* * *

Each of us has times in our lives when we want or need to approach an “inner room.” There may be parts of us that believe we are worthy of that honor and are even looking forward to it. There may also be voices inside us that tell us to be hesitant, that we are not worthy, that we are scared and are safer going through the motions, while really staying in the waiting room.

So how do we motivate ourselves to enter that inner room, despite our worries? How do we know we are worthy? Is there music around us that can help us to overcome our fears and go straight in?

In Israel, this Shabbat, and outside of Israel, next Shabbat, we will read the parsha, Torah portion, of Acharei Mot, which describes such an approach. The parsha details Aaron’s performance of the Avodah, the Yom Kippur sacrificial service, in his capacity as the first high priest. The text starts with the verse:

א  וַיְדַבֵּר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת, שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן–בקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי-ה’, וַיָּמֻתוּ.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD, and died. (Leviticus 16:1)

This verse appears six chapters after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu. Why does the text mention their death now? And why is it important to remind us that they died behikravtem, when drawing near to God?

One reason could be, that Aaron, in performing the Yom Kippur sacrificial service, will have to enact many of the same motions that his sons did when they died. Nadab and Abihu gave sacrifices by literally coming close to God, Va’yakrivu lifnei Hashem” (10:1). How traumatic it must have been for Aaron, a father, to prepare to carry out many of the same acts that his sons carried out, which caused God to devour them with fire.

Though there is an obvious difference between Nadab and Abihu offering “a strange fire that God had not commanded” (10:1) and the detailed sacrifices Aaron was commanded to bring, Aaron may feel immense trepidation in now having to come close to God and bring sacrifices through fire. His anxiety is especially warranted because the Yom Kippur sacrifices he is to bring, are also extremely similar to those Aaron offered on the day of the dedication of the Tabernacle, right before his sons died.

Furthermore, Aaron will be entering the sanctuary in order to ask for atonement for his and the rest of the Israelites sins, a potentially even more painful act if he considers he was not given the opportunity to ask for atonement for his own sons, before their traumatic death. Perhaps Aaron, as some commentators suggest, is even scared that he, himself, will be punished for his role in the sin of the Golden Calf and then his fate will be just like the fate of his sons.

Much has been written about how painful it must have been for Abraham that his son, Isaac, almost became a sacrifice to God in the Akeida, binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashana. How fitting that in this text, which many synagogues read on Yom Kippur, we consider how painful it was for Aaron to re-live the trauma of his sons literally becoming sacrifices as they burnt to death near sacrificial fire.

For all of the above reasons and more, the voices in Aaron’s head could be intensely telling him, “Do not approach God. Do not be vulnerable. Stay where it is safe. Stay in the waiting room.” How did Aaron get the courage he needed to enter the sanctuary and perform the Yom Kippur sacrificial service?

Immediately after Aaron’s sons died, six chapters ago, Moses, perhaps anticipating Aaron’s raw fear of ever coming close to God and the sanctuary again, reassured Aaron that God said, “Bekrovei-Akadesh,” through those that come close to Me — I, God will be sanctified (10:3). Out of all the words of comfort Moses could have chosen to say to Aaron, he chose to remind him that those who come close to God, as Aaron must do as high priest, elevate God’s sanctity. Here Moses immediately made clear to Aaron that Nadab and Abihu’s sin was not in coming close to God, it was that they brought to this inner sanctum a transgressive “strange fire.”

The need for closeness is stressed in the language that followed. Moses then asked Aaron’s relatives to “kirvu,come close, to help bring the bodies of their loved ones out of the sanctuary, and the text recounted, “Va’yakrivu,” they drew close. (10:4-5).

Fast forward to our parsha, and we will read three separate times Vayikrav Aharon,” that Aaron performed or brought near the sacrifices of Yom Kippur. By emphasizing that Aaron came close, the text highlights that it was specifically in Aaron’s drawing near, through his pain and trauma, that Aaron brought kaparah, atonement. It was the actions he took in full vulnerability that were effective in absolving himself and all of Israel on this holiest of days.

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, similarly defines vulnerability as being able to come close, being able to say, “I care about you” first, without any guarantee that the one you approach will respond in kind. That is, being able to enter the “inner room” despite having deep uncertainty of what might be inside. Dr. Brown further found that though instinctively we know that vulnerability can cause shame and fear and a struggle for self-esteem, it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, and of love.[2]

How does this relate to us? We each live in a world where we are vulnerable, where there are no guarantees: where to get what we want, we often have to ask without knowing what the answer will be. Often, we choose to “stay in the waiting room” and to numb our vulnerability by closing ourselves off to opportunity in order to forestall disappointment. But, it turns out we cannot selectively numb negative emotions, and we end up numbing joy, and gratitude and happiness as well.

Instead, we could, like Aaron, choose to be “Va’yikrav,” to come close, to let ourselves be seen, vulnerably seen, and enter the inner sanctum with our whole hearts, even though there is no guarantee. We could also, like Moses, choose to supply the music, the support and comfort to those who are vulnerable and are amidst profound and deep uncertainty.

As we reach the end of Passover and we begin to think of the rest of our year ahead, may we all have strength to listen to the beautiful music within ourselves and in the world that surrounds us. May that music give us courage to be vulnerable, even, and especially when there are no guarantees. And through this vulnerability, may we find more joy, more compassion, more happiness and more gratitude in all parts of our lives.

[1] Thank you to Rabbi Jeffrey Beinenfeld from whom I first heard this story

[2] Brown, B. (June 2010). The Power of Vulnerability.

About the Author
Jennifer Raskas is the Washington, DC, manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She speaks, writes and teaches classes widely on Hebrew literary approaches to readings in Tanakh. She is also a trained facilitator through Resetting the Table, which brings communities together for brave conversations across difference. Jennifer received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and her Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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