To live in unprecedented times means to live after. It means: something has happened that I never could have imagined. It means my image of myself has as yet to catch up to the new reality of my life. It means in part I still live before this all happened and wake up surprised at my current reality.
This happened to Aaron. He was living in a world where he and his sons were set to become the Priests (Cohanim) for Israel. He was Moses’ partner in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. And now he was giving his children and grandchildren a critical role in the spiritual life and leadership of his people.
And then something unexpected happened. Nadav and Avihu took upon themselves to offer strange fire before God. That is, in the middle of a ritual of sacrifice, they brought forward their own offering. According to some, they were attempting to seize leadership from Moses and Aaron. According to others, they were so overwhelmed with their love of God that they were consumed. Either way, Aaron suddenly lives in an unexpected world of loss. Where he had known such fullness, he was now empty.
Aaron’s initial response is silence. He bites back the curse, the anger, and instead says nothing to Moses or to God. Yet he lives the rest of his life after and in response to what happened. He becomes a pursuer and lover of peace as if to say to God: you tore wholeness and joy from me. I will dedicate myself to protecting others from such loss. Aaron does it because of what God did to him, in spite of what God did to him. He chooses holiness and healing and steps away from anger and despair.
We are living after. Who could have imagined six weeks ago that we would be living in quarantine with no end in sight? Who could have imagined that we cannot and still don’t understand what will follow this time? For many of us, our image of ourselves in the world still lags behind the new reality. In part, this is because so much uncertainty remains. And the challenge of living after.
We are daily presented a choice. That lag between our imagined lives and our real lives can generate anger, despair, and withdrawal from the world. Particularly given the need for separation and quarantine, we risk an insular and inwards move away from others—emotionally and spiritually as well as physically.
I challenge us instead to respond as Aaron did. To begin in silence. To sit with our situation as it is. To breathe and be with what is right now. To find the tools to be in the world with uncertainty. We must start with silence to find the inner tools that will allow us to grow.
Then we can find ways to dedicate our lives to healing. We are living in a time of illness; let us become agents of God’s healing. Aaron had a job from God to serve the people. Those acts of service sustained him in loss and gave him a new purpose in the after world. We too need to uncover our ways of being in service so that we also can find our purpose in the world.
May God bring healing into the world soon and speedily. May God strengthen the hands of physicians and nurses and researchers to be Your partners in healing. And May God guide us into service and partnership to become agents of healing, people who build community and friendships and serve those most in need and find time for those only a little in need. Let us together be God’s agents of healing so that the after world in which we live can become a new place of wholeness and joy.
Rabbi David Booth