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Parashat Acharei Mot 5776 — 05/07/2016

Parashat Acharei Mot 5776 — 05/07/2016

Vayikra 16:1-18:30

Our parashah begins with the words “Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons…” and then goes on to detail the Yom Kippur service. The Yom Kippur service is the only time when the High Priest can enter the Holy of Holies, and none other than the High Priest may do so. R. Steinsaltz returns to the question of the sin for which Nadav and Avihu lost their lives, and I think opens up a discussion that is relevant to the rest of the parashah:

The Midrash provides a long list of explanations as to why Aaron’s sons died, ranging from the mundane to more lofty aspects: They entered the Holy of Holies, they brought unauthorized fire, they were intoxicated by wine, they were unmarried, they were haughty, and so on (Tanhuma, Acharei Mot)

Some of the explanations, along with the plain meaning of the verse “when they drew near before Gd” (Lev 16:1), have a common denominator: The cause of the sin was over-familiarity with Gd and His service.

What do we mean by over-familiarity? Imagine that any of us, ordinary citizens of the country, were granted a 10-minute interview with the President of the US, where we could tell him whatever was on our mind, whatever was weighing on us, whatever ideas we had to improve the country. How would we prepare our words? How careful would we be to express ourselves just right? How would we dress? How many butterflies would fill our stomach as the meeting approached?

Now suppose you’re the new President’s old buddy from the neighborhood (Rahm Emmanuel to Barack Obama), or his business partner (Eddie Jacobson to Harry Truman). When they go in to see the President, there is certainly great respect that their old friend now holds the highest office in the land, but one has to imagine that the language is a good deal less formal and more convivial than in the previous example. Having known the President in his early days, having seen him as “just another guy,” the degree of awe is naturally less.

Now it may be OK to give the President a chance to let his hair down (in private), for he is, after all, another human being, albeit entrusted with great power and influence. When it comes to Gd, the situation is very different, and it is specifically the kohanim are in the greatest danger. When the ordinary Israelite came to the Temple, as all males are required to do on the three Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot), it was an extraordinary event. Thousands of people, animals being offered, the aroma of the burning incense, the priests in their robes making offerings on the altar, the palpable sense of Gd’s presence. There was no shortage of awe on these occasions!

For the kohanim it was sometimes a different story. This was their work, the Temple was their workplace. They knew it inside and out. They could go through the “Employees Only” doors. After a while the inspiration fades and things become routine. The sense of Gd as an overwhelming spiritual force, a majestic King and a great father and protector could easily get lost in the daily routine of offerings. Although the Tabernacle was only just inaugurated when Nadav and Avihu died, they had been around the center of power and spirituality in the community for virtually their whole lives; it was already old hat to them, with terrible consequences.

We all face the same issue in our spiritual lives, especially when it comes to daily prayers. Anything that we do over and over again, day in and day out, or even year in and year out, has a tendency to become routinized. We stand to pray, we don’t even have to look at the page, we know the words by heart and they come out of our mouths as if we were wind-up toys. This is not prayer of course – it is merely a lifeless shell of prayer, and it doesn’t form any really meaningful connection between us and Gd. This kind of empty ritual is condemned all throughout our tradition, from the prophets to modern-day writers on religion (and it is not an issue among Jews only – it is a human issue and affects everyone). The question is, what are we going to do about it?

Our tradition tells us that there are two ways to serve Gd: the lower is out of “fear” and the higher is out of “love.” Now “fear” (as in “put the fear of Gd into someone”) really should be translated as “awe,” and comes from the same root as “to see.” When we serve Gd out of “fear,” it really means that we have a clear perception of our actions and their consequences, whether they will bring us closer to Gd or the opposite. “Fear” is really the trembling and awe that we feel when we meet a great person, only writ much larger. It is this “fear of Gd” that keeps us separated from Gd, unable to draw to close to His greatness, as Nadav and Avihu tried to do. Of course, their end should “put the fear of Gd”into every one of us!

The higher level of service is out of love of Gd. Love is the force that unifies. We long to draw close to our beloved and the feeling is mutual. When we serve Gd out of love it is not because of fear of separation, it is born out of desire for unification. We strive for complete self-abnegation before Gd’s infinite grandeur, and I believe it is this complete surrender of our individuality to Gd that keeps us from getting overly “familiar.” And yet, some individuality must remain in order for Gd to be experienced. Perhaps we could say that “over-familiarity” might also refer to a situation where the individuality is completely lost in the radiance of the Infinite – the complete loss of individuality would then be the explanation for Nadav and Avihu’s death, as it says, “Of this did Hashem speak – I will be sanctified by those closest to Me.”

As is often pointed out, we are nowhere near the level of closeness to Gd that we have to worry about coming too close. We have to worry about filling our davvening with kavvanah – putting our soul into our prayers and reaching out to try to connect to Gd in some small way. It takes work – that is why prayer is called avodah, but it is the whole purpose of our existence on this earth!

Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

There is a dispute about the actual readings for Haftarat Acharei. Rather than recap the dispute, I refer you to the Stone Chumash, page 1173, where Artscroll lays out the differrent opinions. According to Artscroll, this is the Ashkenazic Haftarah. It is only 9 verses long. I had always thought a Haftarah had to be at least 21 verses (corresponding to the 3 verse minimum for an aliyah to the Torah x 7 aliyot) but appaarently this isn’t a hard and fast rule.

The Haftarah is directed against the debauched Northern Kingdom, and promises, like the latter part of the parashah, that sin will lead to exile. This of course happened – the Northern Kingdom was destroyed quite a bit before the Southern Kingdom, by the Assyrians, who exiled and scattered the 10 tribes, who then became “lost” – if not physically, then by means of intermarriage and assimilation, lost to history. The latter half of the passage predicts the eventual Redemption of Israel and its resettlement in the Land.

The brief Artscroll commentary links the latter part of the parashah (chapter 18), which details the illicit sexual relations and indicates that participating in such liasons will lead to exile from the Land, to the similar prediction in the Haftarah. In general, sin is a disregard of proper boundaries – whether stealing (disregard of property rights) or murder (disregard of human rights) or illicit sexual relations (disregard of personal boundaries). It is a kind of “over-familiarity,” as we discussed in our discussion of the parashah. When we get too “familiar” with someone or something, boundaries begin to blur and pretty soon we find ourselves where we shouldn’t be. And we get into trouble. I’m sure we can all think of cases where we’ve “mis-read” a situation and wound up embarrrassing ourselves. Think back to your teenage years if you can’t come up with something more recent! Nadav and Avihu mis-read their own status, and paid the ultimate price. Of the “4 who entered Paradise,” only R. Akiva maintained an appropriate distance and emerged unscathed. On the level of society, when respect for boundaries breaks down, exile – where we leave all our old boundaries behind – is the result. The purpose of life is to achieve unbounded awareness. The method is to recognize and use boundaries appropriately to get there.