Acharei: Rabbi Abraham
AFTER THE DEATH OF AARON’S TWO SONS
Our parshah, ACHAREI MOS, introduces the account of the awesome service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, by noting that this parshah was given to Moses AFTER — in the light of — the death of Aaron’s two sons when they offered “strange fire” inside the Sanctuary.
Nadav and Avihu wanted to redeem the entire world and bring it to G-d in an instant — but they themselves were consumed by G-d’s jealous fire. Their endeavor was in the realm of excess. There is an evil in the world that cannot be redeemed: it’s only redemption lies in being smashed and destroyed forever (just as TUM’AH, ritual impurity, leaves a clay vessel only when it is broken).
At the center of the High Priest’s service on Yom Kippur lies the profound mystery of the GORAL. This was the “lottery” by which one of a pair of identical goats was chosen to be the holy sacrificial offering whose blood would atone for Israel in the Holy of Holies. The other was taken to a remote mountain-crag and cast down to AZAZEL, the Devil, being quickly broken to pieces on the mountainside. This mitzvah is numbered by the Rabbis together with the purification from defilement from the dead through the ashes of the Red Heifer as among those incomprehensible CHUKIM, “statutes” at which the nations and the evil inclination scoff.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once put the question in a graphic form: “In the Purim play, why should one person be chosen to play Mordechai the Jew and live, while another plays Haman and gets hung?”
There is no satisfactory answer to the deepest questions of destiny in this world: it is simply not given to the eyes of flesh and blood to understand why this one is given one role in life and that one another. There is a heavenly MAZAL at work that brings about the GORAL, “fate”. What our parshah tells us is that we are free to choose our path in the world, and that following G-d’s commandments guarantees us life.
“And you shall guard my statutes and my laws which, when a man — HA-ADAM — does them, he shall LIVE through them, I AM HASHEM” (Leviticus 18:5).
The SIFRA DEVEY RAV, the oldest rabbinic midrashic commentary on Leviticus, goes to some lengths in commenting on this verse to emphasize that this applies to all mankind. “It does not say ‘which, when a Cohen or Levi or Israelite does them’ but ‘when a MAN — HaAdam — does them’, including a GOY”. Incidentally, this is the exact Hebrew word there. While many gentiles find the word Goy offensive, it should not cause offence. It is simply the standard rabbinic term for one who was not born an Israelite — “gentile” is the Latin equivalent. In the comment quoted here, the Rabbis were EMPHASIZING that the Torah path is the universal path, open to Goy, Israelite, Levite and Cohen, as long as they are willing to follow it in truth.
Only one person can play the role of the High Priest. Thus when studying the portions dealing with the High Priest’s Yom Kippur service, we are onlookers at the ritual. Yet there is also a deep personal message for us. We study this parshah at this time of the year, as we proceed on the fifty-day SEFIRAS HA-OMER count towards our annual peak, the Giving of the Torah on the forthcoming festival of SHAVUOS. The season of Counting the Omer is a time for reflection on who we are and what we are trying to achieve. The High Priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur is a lesson to us to appoint special times for seclusion in order to enter into the personal sanctuary that we must reserve within the depths of our own hearts for true encounter with self and with G-d. One of the best facilitators of this encounter with self and with G-d is the Sweet Singer of Israel, King David. It is customary to give particular emphasis to recital of the Psalms during the Sefirah period, for the psalms are conducive to healing, repentance, atonement and LIFE.
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The account of the High Priest’s Yom Kippur service is followed by a number of commandments establishing the centrality of the Sanctuary in the G-dly service of the community. The prohibition of animal sacrifices outside the Sanctuary, and later, outside the Temple in Jerusalem, forbids each person building his own personal Temple and Altar, whether literally or in the form of pride and self-worship. There is only one place for a literal animal offering. That is Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac and where Jacob saw the SULAM, the ladder of ascent, that is SINAI (SULAM and SINAI have the same gematria.) After the wandering in the Wilderness, the final resting place of the Shechinah for all time is in Yerushalayim, Ir HaKodesh, in the Temple on Mount Moriah.
Among the commandments relating to the slaughter of animals is the severe prohibition against eating blood, which is one of the fundamentals of our daily dietary code. The Shechitah method of slaughter ensures that the vital blood of the animal, strictly forbidden for consumption, is shed at the time of slaughter. The removal of the veins of the animal by the butcher and subsequent salting of the meat according to ritual law ensure the removal of the blood from the meat. This is necessary because an animal spirit resides in the blood. If this blood is consumed by man, he falls from his level and is overcome by an animal spirit. The laws of Kashrus are the very foundation of a diet that ensures that we have a human spirit, and that we think and behave like Bney Adam.
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THE LAWS OF FAMILY PURITY
The third and concluding section of the parshah, which contains the above-quoted verse, “he shall LIVE through them”, lays out the basic family law of the Torah, including the fundamental laws of incest and the various forbidden relationships, including mother and son, father and daughter, brother and sister, adultery, forbidden intercourse during monthly period, prohibition of homosexuality, bestiality, etc.
In more innocent times, some people were taught that certain forms of behavior are fundamentally WRONG. The various incest laws of the Torah, which are the Holy root of this code, can be seen in clear letters in our Parshah. But anyone who ventures outside the holy camp of the Torah to observe the “wider” world (such as dating services, Internet chat-rooms, etc.) can rapidly discover that those interested in any or all of the above prohibitions and perversions can quickly get fully involved in a whole world where they are all freely available. What Internet has begun to reveal appears to be only the tip of the iceberg of the actual behavior of a very large part of the human population. Even in Israel vociferous secularists are openly identified with the reformist line that the fundamental statutes governing human relationships may be freely broken. This is precisely what leads to the breakdown of basic human norms that we witness all around the world todayl in the name of “freedom” and “liberation”.
This is no liberation. The only freedom and life are those promised by the Torah: “And you shall guard My statutes and My laws which when a man will do them, he will live through them, I am HaShem.”
The law of Shabbos and the fundamental laws of the code laid down in our parshah are the foundation of the family life which is the basis for the rearing of a new generation — our children and our children’s children. We are all bound to know the basic laws, and if our paths in life bring us to places where these laws are infringed, we must be properly forewarned. It is most important to teach children with sensitivity how they must take care of themselves against strangers and even with friends and close relatives.
The best ways for Jews and Bney Yisrael, Bney Bris, members of the Covenant of G-d, to maintain health and life is through strengthening ourselves with our families and good friends. This is accomplished when we bond together, as we did on Pesach. Now, after Pesach, we carry through the holiness attained during the festival into the days of the year as we Count the Omer — count the days and learn to value each day, day after day. During the long summer days, we must make time to study G-d’s laws, the laws that bring LIFE, celebrating the Shabbas, the Day of Life. Fathers and sons should take time to study G-d’s Torah together regularly, and so mothers and daughters.