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Stark Contrast

Posted on ט׳ באייר ה׳תש״ע (April 23, 2010) | in Acharei Mot, Shmini | by

Acharei Mot is notable for a startling contrast: Opening with the laws describing the office of the Kohen Gadol, as he stands before the holy of holies, seeking the atonement of the Jewish people on the most important day of the year – the parsha than turns its attention to our most primal appetites. In fairly abrupt fashion, we move from commandments pertaining to the highest level of man’s spiritual reach, to graphically imagined injunctions against slaughtering sacrifices outside the temple and consuming blood, followed by a long catolog of prohibited and permitted sexual relationships.

What might we make of this contrast?

I think any understanding of this stark juxtaposition begins with a recognition that the parsha is titled Acharei Mot, after the death, and that what follows occurs in some relation to that event. Indeed the parsha opens with the words: G-d spoke to Moshe after the death of Aaron’s two sons, who had drawn close to G-d and died. The laws that immediately follow are commanded as a direct result of the actions of Nadav and Avihu, setting guidelines and strict boundaries for priestly worship and approach to the holy of holies. They seem intended to ensure that such an event would never repeat itself. But can we view the rest of this parsha in the light of the death of Nadav and Avihu? That is to ask, what might be the relationship between the introductory “after the death” motif and the more lowly prohibitions that follow immediately after the commandments to the Kohen Gadol?

The narrative context for Acharei Mot is set up in Parsha Shemini: We recall that Shemini describes the inauguration of the Tent of meeting on its eight and final day. On this day the inauguration period is about to climax with the consecration of Aharon and his sons- as Kohanim. We observe as they perform the offerings according to Moshe’s instructions in an atmosphere of great anticipation before all the camp- and if all goes according to plan, the Glory of Hashem is to make its appearance, sanctifying the work of the mishkan.

What follows is just that: The verse reads: Aharon raised his hands toward the people and blessed them; then he descended from having performed the sin-offering, the elevation –offering, and the peace-offering. Moses and Aharon came to the Tent of the meeting, and they went out and they blessed the people- and the glory of Hashem appeared to the entire people.

Certainly this is an unparalleled moment- the entire nation witnesses the presence of Hashem, directly, as a result of the holy priests successfully translating G-d’s commandments into service. And indeed, Aharon’s offerings are acceptable to Hashem:

The next verse reads:

A fire went forth before Hashem and consumed upon the Altar the elevation offering and the fats.

The response by the people also reflects an unparalleled spiritual height:

The people saw and sang glad song and fell upon their faces.

A pinnacle in our history as a holy people has been reached here.

What follows, in the very next verse, has to be one of the most abrupt descents -from the highest of the high, to the lowest of the lows in all of the torah: at the height of their service, and in the holy mishkan itself, this is what happens next:

The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before Hashem an alien Fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem.

Interpretations abound as to what has just occurred here. I want to simply point out that this abrupt and startling descent is echoed in parsha Acharei Mot. In Shemini we witness the towering personalities of Nadav and Avihu loosing their way when acting on the basis of their own instincts and emotions. And this mirrors the structure of Acharei Mot, represented by the spiritual heights sought be the Kohen Gadol in the holy of holies, presented alongside the instincts and drives animating self-devised sacrifices, blood prohibitions and forbidden relationships.

For Nadav and Avihu, extending the boundaries set by discipline and modesty results in loosing themselves to their will and longing to move closer to Hashem. The antidote is an explicit directive that sets the boundaries for service to Hashem. Likewise, in our relationships with those we love: be it sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles etc. These are relationships based on love and affection not unlike that shared between a husband and a wife- But boundaries to will and desire exist that need to be set down and obeyed as explicitly and as rigorously as the boundaries placed on the high priest in his approach to Hashem, regardless of enthusiasm or love. Viewed this way, the construct we find in both these parshiot is not so much a juxtaposition of high and low, but rather one of divine order and human resistance.

What might be learned from such a construct? Perhaps we are to recognize within it the divine order of the world, determined by Hashem, together with the means to navigate our way through it. The path set forth for us is defined but narrow, hard earned but accessible. At stake is Divine Peace, perhaps best understood as the Shalom we evoke in the final blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei and in the Priestly Blessing. Rav Schwab teaches that the word shalom has 3 connotations: peace in the physical sense of well-being, as in absence from war and enemies that endanger us; peace in terms of peaceful relationships between man and man, in terms of absence of strife and discord, and finally the highest and finest form of shalom, that of inner peace, manifested as ones own ability to be at peace with himself and Hashem.

This ideal of divine peace is developed throughout the entire Torah. In Acharei Mot and Shemeni the urge to follow the dictates of ones own heart is held up in contrast to it. We see there that whether in service to Hashem in the holy of holies or in our daily behaviors in the world at large, submission to the Divine order exists in conflict to our unbridled emotion and inclinations. This conflict plays itself out within the contrasts inherent in Acharei Mot, and in the narrative of Nadav and Abihu. From both we learn that to act our part in the divine order of the world we must first recognize that such a Divine system exists, and then take the necessary steps to be part of it. The result can be peace, in all its holy and material aspects.

Shabat Shalom

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