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  • Writer's pictureAyelet HaShachar

"Ugh, you need me to add a title?"

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

This Dvar Torah was written by Eve Altman for Parshat Shemini, 23 Nisan 5780 / 17 April 2020.

As I scroll through the various Jewish websites that explain the meaning of this week’s parsha, Shemini, I can’t help but feel uninspired.

Maybe my desk set up isn’t ergonomic enough? I have had a stiff neck for the past few days. I should probably raise my laptop so the screen is more eye-level. I grab some books and board games to build my homemade laptop stand. I check my posture, sit back into the chair. My neck still hurts.

I tell myself to push past the pain. It’s just a stiff neck, worse things could happen. You could be unemployed; you could still be living in that dark apartment you moved out of just before COVID-19 became really serious; you could be like Aaron in this week’s parsha and have two of your sons die suddenly for no apparent reason.

It’s 12:37pm. Donny asked if the dvar torah could be done by about 4pm today. Why did I start working on it so late? It didn’t occur to me at first that I’d actually have to write something nice, or at least readable. I can’t rely on my usually dvar torah style of some dot points and talking off-the-cuff. I think I’m better at talking than I am at writing. This whole process isn’t working for my perfectionist tendencies.

I turn to Donny (in a very careful way as to not exacerbate the neck pain).

“This parsha is uninspiring.”

“Well let’s talk through it,” he calmly replies. “What’s it about?”

I explain what I’ve read on and – a bunch of sacrifices are being made to God, then two of Aaron’s sons bring forward a ‘strange fire’, which God isn’t pleased with, so he makes the fire ‘consume them’ and they die instantly. In responding to the death of his sons Aaron is completely silent. We then have the laws of Kashurt explained.

Donny’s face lights up, “I love this parsha!”

Of course he does. He explains all the interesting aspects and questions - why were Aaron’s son’s struck down? Maybe there’s something in there about arrogance? What exactly was the strange fire? Why did Aaron respond with silence? There’s also all the fascinating aspects of Kashrut. Kashrut is a system for hygiene which has culturally become a system for differentiating the acceptable from the basic, and the idea of things being Kosher is not just limited to food. We even use the word ‘kosher’ today is in quite a casual way to refer to whether or not something is okay or acceptable. I think Donny would make a great Rabbi if the work-life balance was more reasonable.

There are so many interesting things in this parsha. There’s a lot of richness to draw upon and be inspired by. But I still don’t feel inspired. I have no desire to read or write anything meaningful.

I’ve often felt like this over the past few weeks. Some days are great – work is exciting and motivating, I exercise and go on walks, I get out of bed in a reasonable amount of time, I read. But some days are like today – I feel angsty and restless, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can make me feel better. Not coffee, not exercise, not sunshine, not even delicious food.

I don’t feel sad, I just feel stuck.

Adjusting to the new normal of COVID-19 has been difficult for everyone in their own way. On days like today, I try to remind myself of how lucky I am. I still have a job, I have awesome housemates, I have a beautiful garden, I have wonderful friends and family, I’m part of this great Jewish community. There are so many people in Australia and across the world who have really suffered, who don’t know how they’re going to feed their family or pay their bills. Even this morning one of my housemates found out that she wasn’t eligible for JobKeeper because you have to have been employed for at least 12 months from the 1st of March 2019, and she was hired on the 13th of March 2019. That doesn’t seem very kosher to me.

As I’m pacing around the house, wondering how do I hold all these things in tension with the need to be kind to myself, I think about Aaron’s silence. Blu Greenberg reflects:

“[Aaron] does not justify the cruel decree by blaming his sons and accepting their fate as punishment for their sins. Yet, neither does he revolt or protest God’s action. Total silence.

Aaron’s response is the profoundest human and religious response to the reality that there are times when good people die unjustly or are consumed in tragedies that seem to be arbitrary, shocking, without justification, and with nothing to ameliorate the pain and loss of those who love them.”

Sometimes awful things happen, and we don’t know how to respond. We’re paralysed by the hugeness and unprecedented nature of the thing. We remain silent. COVID-19 feels like that. It’s creating silences in ways that we haven’t experienced before, creating distance between people, amplifying inequality.

We must speak to these silences, to the inequality and injustice. This means to verbally acknowledge what is happening – up to 1.1 million Australians are ineligible for JobKeeper; there will be an increase in family violence; there concerns that culturally diverse and low socio-economic groups are being targeted by in COVID-19 policing. In order to fight against these, we must first name them.

This Shabbat, I challenge you to reflect on the silences you see being created by COVID-19, and to speak to them. Also, if anyone has any good stretches for neck pain please send them my way.

Shabbat Shalom.

Eve is a community organiser, working on migrant community access to clean and affordable energy. She's attended Ayelet HaShachar services for the last eight years. Donny is her partner and a member of the Ayelet HaShachar team.

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