Drash on Parashat Acharei Mot
Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria
This Shabbat is called the great Shabbat or Shabbat hagadol as it is the final Shabbat preceding Pesach. This title is partially drawn from the Haftarah Malachi 3:23: "Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of God." Traditionally this is understood as a direct reference to the coming of the Messiah or the messianic era, and the Paschal lamb is an opportunity for the slaves in Egypt to re-iterate their faith in God.
Similarly the Parashah Acharei Mot opens with a reference to the remarkable story of Nadav and Avihu who bring ‘unauthorised flames as a sacrifice unto God, and are consumed. Yet again faith and ritual practice appear to be in conflict, as their ‘death’ is supposedly a punishment for having brought a sacrificial flame which had not been specifically part of the prescribed rituals.
Yet there have been alternative readings to this reading or ‘Pshat’ - Chayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar (also known as the Or ha-Chayyim after his popular commentary on the Torah) wrote in commenting on Lev Ch 16:1
“Who came close to God and died”:
“They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy, and thereby died. Thus they died by "divine kiss" such as experienced by the perfectly righteous; it is only that the righteous die when the divine kiss approaches them, while they died by their approaching it... Although they sensed their own demise, this did not prevent them from drawing near to God in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kiss and sweetness, to the point that their souls ceased from them.”
Apparently proximity with the Divine is sufficient in itself to bring about ‘enlightenment’ and therefore re-union or Unio Mystico – the mystical joining with God.
According to the Or Ha-chayim, union with God was so desirable that the souls departure from the physical realm was not only acceptable to Nadav and Avihu, but rather this union was desirable.
Another example of the Midrash speaking of the soul’s elevation to Unio Mystico from direct exposure to the Divine is from Exodus 20:1+, where the souls of all the Israelites who have just escaped from slavery leave their bodies during the revelation of the 10 commandments at Mount Sinai. The Torah once again contrasts the horrors of slavery with the purely spiritual in the revelation.
Yet again the Tur (Yaakov ben Asher - Cologne, 1270 - Toledo c.1340, also referred to as "Ba'al ha-Turim", "Author of the Tur"), as well as the Or Ha-chayim speak of the Midrash of the souls yearning to re-join their source of inspiration. Yet ultimately this is not what the commentaries perceive as desirable, quite the opposite, the Tur and Or ha-chayim articulate our obligation is to remain alive and bring holiness into our earthly existence.
The juxtaposition of this tension between the desire for Unio – Mystico and the apparent punishment of Nadav and Avihu then brings our focus from the sublime to the ritualistic and pragmatic structures of atonement as defined in Parashat Acharei Mot.
In contrast to Nadav and Avihu’s forbidden flames, and immediate consumption in divine fires, Aaron – their father and the Cohen Gadol/ high priest is allowed to enter into the holy of holies only once a year during the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Tradition has it that the Cohen Gadol also would be struck down if he was not pure – and this was to be a primary indicator of the forthcoming downfall of the second temple.
While within a cloud of incense, the Cohen Gadol would confess the sins on behalf of his family, his tribe and the nation – this has become a primary re-enactment of the afternoon service in our Machzor Gates of Repentance.
Having made his confessions, we find the source text of the scape goat – which was to take our metaphoric sins out into the wilderness.
Our parashah is contrasting quite pragmatic laws such as those forbidding the consumption of blood, and forbidden relationships, with the purely spiritual desire to seek enlightenment. Yet even the pragmatic laws are imbued with spiritual meaning. The blood symbolizes the soul and is therefore consecrated to God, while the emphasis on forbidden relationships is as much about making those relationships which we do have sacred.
Parashat Acharei Mot brings Pesach as one of the pivotal moments in the Jewish calendar into the context of what our responsibilities are. From the wise son familiar with all the laws and precepts all the way through to the most secular of Jews, Pesach is generally marked and celebrated. Our recognition that “bayamim ha-hem bazman hazeh” – in those days in our times’ actually refers to our own need for ongoing personal redemption from slavery (in whatever form we experience it). We, just as much as each and every soul at Sinai are in search of revelation, of meaning, purpose and ultimately of enlightenment or of Unio-mystic.
Whether we believe in the detailed laws of Pesach Kashrut, or not, this is our opportunity to bring our awareness of God and our Jewish identity into our daily lives. Whether God’s outstretched arm is our perception of God’s role in our lives, or our personal commitment to social justice, and living a committed good and meaningful life, Shabbat Hagadol and Parashat Acharei Mot invite us to be present, aware and to participate fully in partnership with God.