“Due to their closeness to G-d they perished” – Reflections on the Williamsburg Funeral

The sight of the crowded funeral in Williamsburg, together with the provocative words of Mayor De Blasio talking about “The Jews”, was a troubling experience for many of us. New York’s Chassidic community has suffered more than a thousand casualties from the COVID-19 pandemic, and many Gedolei HaTorah have succumbed to the plague. My heart goes out to their families, and the following words are coming from a place of empathy and compassion.

How is it possible that, despite the enormous loss of life, we still see these phenomena of public funerals, secret minyanim, and other mitzvah activities that directly endanger lives?

Perhaps the answer lies within the opening Pasuk of this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot: “Due to their closeness to Hashem they perished”. We see that the sons of Aharon died because they got too close to the Holy of Holies, which is dangerous. To understand the psychology of this phenomenon, I wish to quote a Torah of Rebbe Nachman of Breslow.

Rebbe Nachman relates to the following Midrash about the might of Hashem: “This is the might of His might (the fullest expression of G-d’s might) – that He conquers His inclination in that He exercises patience toward the wicked.” (Yoma 69b). Based on that Midrash, apparently even G-d has an evil inclination that He subdues. Reb Nachman explains that the “evil inclination of G-d” is the attribute of judgment, which symbolizes the original Divine plan that this world should be a perfect place without flaws and shortcomings. However, since by definition the world is filled with flaws, in order for the world to exist, G-d utilizes the attribute of kindness and conquers His “evil inclination”, i.e. the desire for perfection which ignores the deficiencies of reality.

According to Rebbe Nachman, Tzaddikim (pious people) also suffer from the same symptoms. In his words: “Regarding the matter of closeness to G-d, there is a great evil inclination among Tzaddikim, that sometimes their exaggerated religious fervor emanates from their evil inclination… for there is a great evil inclination when one approaches holiness. And therefore, at the time of Matan Torah, Hashem warned Moshe Rabbenu saying: ‘Go down, warn the people not to break through to the LORD to gaze, lest many of them perish.’ Since the Israelites were at an ultimate level of greatness, it was imperative to warn them regarding the evil inclination which prevails during that closeness to G-d.”

The essence of Torah observance is balance. Extreme closeness to Hashem may generate tunnel-vision, which can cause one to lose sight of other important values. For that reason, Parashat Acharei Mot opens up with repeating the tragic story of the death of Aharon’s sons, even though it was all described at length three portions ago. This Parasha deals mainly with Yom HaKippurim, the only day on which we are allowed to experience extreme holiness and to lose sight of the more mundane aspects of life. Hence, the opening commandment to Aharon is: “Tell your brother Aharon that he should not come at will into the Holiness… lest he die.” This is a commandment to limit the holiness to protect us from misusing it.

It is no coincidence that the following Torah portion that we also read this week is entitled Kedoshim, . From the beginning of Sefer Vayikra, we delved into the most spiritual realm – sacrifices and offerings, laws of purity and impurity, laws of kashrut and proper sexual conduct. Parashat Kedoshim is the first Parasha in Sefer VaYikra that takes us back to reality. The transcendent laws detailed in this Parasha are intertwined with very “worldly” commandments such as, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself…”

Parashat Acharei Mot, which opened with the warning regarding over-closeness to holiness that might lead to death, concludes with another significant commandment: ‘Ve’Chai Bahem’ – “You shall keep My laws and My rules, and live through them: I am the L-rd.” The Torah was given to us for the sake of living; as the Sages say, “A person shall do mitzvoth and live by them and not die from them.” (Yoma 85b).

Balance and moderation are not equivalent to compromise or mediocrity. On the contrary, extreme and imbalanced holiness might be counter-productive for Avodat Hashem. The psyche of the evil inclination of the pious is not a new phenomenon. It always existed since the times of Nadav and Avihu. The funeral pictures from Williamsburg are shocking and heartbreaking at the very same time, since such gatherings will surely cause more casualties within that community. The secret minyanim that are still taking place are nothing but a transgression of the commandment “You shall not murder”.

I truly hope and pray that strong, clear and decisive voices from across the broad rabbinical spectrum will speak out clearly to denounce those who continue to risk other people’s lives in the pursuit of holiness.

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