Acharei Mot, “After the Death” – An Invitation to Join in Searching Our Souls on Israel and Gaza

Posted on May 3, 2024 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot, “after the death,” referring to the tragedy that befell the sons of Aaron who died while offering “strange fire” on the altar of the newly dedicated Tabernacle.

The Torah is unclear about the nature of the transgression represented by that “strange fire,” leaving commentators to speculate. Some say youthful exuberance and excessive ambition led the boys to try to outdo their father’s offering — an offering that literally blew up in their faces. Others identify the sin as religious zealotry that led them to the extreme behavior that claimed their lives.

What I find most interesting and instructive is the Torah’s response to the tragedy, which we learn about in the parashah and runs in two veins.

The first is the performance of rituals of atonement that became the basis for the rites of Yom Kippur. Instead of merely assigning blame to the boys for the reckless acts that led to their deaths, the community engaged in a collective act of soul-searching. The boys and their actions did not exist in a vacuum. They were raised and educated in a community. They were weaned on its ethos and witnessed the responses of their elders to the vicissitudes of life. They — and their sin — can reasonably be seen as products of their environment and the culture of their community.

This doesn’t diminish the boys’ responsibility; rather, it expands accountability to society at large. A collective effort to take responsibility requires a community to examine its values and refine its ways, for only after it engages in this process can it grow.

This is evident in the second response to the tragedy described in Acharei Mot: the articulation of values that can grow into norms of positive behavior and prevent the recurrence of such a disaster.

One of these values is the mitzvah known as pikuach nefesh, the commandment that places the preservation of life above nearly every other value. The rabbis derive this teaching from Leviticus 18:5: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which humanity shall live.” From this we learn, say the sages, that we should “live by them, and not die by them,” meaning that we should do almost anything to save even a single life.

I believe we are living in an Acharei Mot moment. Israelis and Jews around the world are still in the early stages of processing the horrors of October 7, and we are only just beginning to consider the moral implications of the war that began that day. A midrash on Jacob’s encounter with his brother, Esau, notices the description of Jacob’s mindset before they met. He was “fearful and afraid,” says the text in Genesis 32:8. Why the repetitive language? asks the midrash. To teach us that Jacob was fearful of being killed — and also afraid that he would kill his brother.

The war in Gaza, which I believe is a just war of self-defense, has exacted a horrific cost on Israelis and Palestinians, combatants and civilians. The loss of life and property is devastating and the resulting trauma in both Israel and Gaza is almost unfathomable.

Here in America and throughout the Diaspora, we, as Rabbi Donniel Hartman has said, are living on the third front of the war. We are being assailed and threatened as Jews as part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel and demonize Zionism — in the media, on the streets of our cities, and especially on college campuses.

Many people have told me they don’t know what to think or how to make sense of it all. Many are fearful for their safety, for our children, for our communities. As a peace-loving and peace-pursuing people, it is hard to balance the mitzvah of defending ourselves with the commandment to preserve and protect the lives of others, even of our enemies. It is painful beyond words to absorb the images of starving Palestinian children, to process the accounts of Israelis who were held hostage in Gaza, and to imagine the hell being endured by those still in captivity.

This coming Monday is Yom HaShoah v’ha-Gevurah, the day when we remember those who were murdered by the Nazis and those who resisted, many even to death. It is a time for us to reflect on the fate of our people when we were powerless and unable to defend ourselves. The following Monday and Tuesday are Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen) and Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day). These national Jewish days of commemoration and celebration remind us of the preciousness of Jewish sovereignty, and the price we have paid to secure it and maintain it.

This year, the celebration of Jewish autonomy will be muted by the painful realities of the battle against Hamas and the forces that would destroy us, and by the horrific cost the war has exacted on both sides of the conflict. It will be and should be an Acharei Mot time for us — a time to reflect on the challenges of choosing life for ourselves and others in the face of the evil embodied and perpetrated by Hamas. It is a time to reflect, as well, on the dangers posed by our own zealots, who are playing with the strange fire of militancy, hatred, and racism. Against this backdrop, it is all the more important to remind ourselves of the core values of life and human dignity that are the essence of the Jewish spirit.

It is in this spirit that we will mark Yom Ha’atzmaut at TBE this year. Next Friday, May 10, we will hold our annual Israel Shabbat, during which we will celebrate the miracle, the hope, and the promise of the State of Israel. After services conclude, we will gather as a community to express our feelings, voice our questions, and share our Acharei Mot struggles in a respectful and sensitive community discussion. I hope you will join us for this important conversation.


Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck