Friday, April 23, 2010

Parshiot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim – פרשיות אחרי מות וקדושים

"וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַיָּמֻתוּ. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה, דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְאַל יָבֹא בְכָל עֵת אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ, מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת אֶל פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאָרֹן, וְלֹא יָמוּת, כִּי בֶּעָנָן אֵרָאֶה עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת. - And Hashem spoke to Moshe, after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near before Hashem, and died. And Hashem said to Moshe: 'Speak to Aharon your brother, he may not come at all times into the Sanctuary within the curtain, before the cover which is upon the Ark, so that he shall not die; for with a cloud I appear upon the Ark-cover."
(ויקרא: טז:א-ב)

Whereas the death of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, is recalled in various other places in the Torah, in the passage above, their passing is mentioned here from a somewhat different angle. Although previously the reason that they merited the death penalty was explicitly mentioned, (making an unauthorized fire-offering) in this instance, the approach is more vague, and only mentions that they died when they approached God, which certainly doesn't seem such a terrible crime.

To understand, we may refer to one King David's psalms: "יְהוָה-מָה-אָדָם, וַתֵּדָעֵהוּ: בֶּן-אֱנוֹשׁ, וַתְּחַשְּׁבֵהוּ," he writes - God, what is man that You recognize him; the son of a frail human that You reckon with him? (Tehillim 144:3)

As limited, mortal creations of an eternal, all-powerful supernatural existence that we refer to as God, there is no meaningful way we can even begin to grasp our relationship to Him. We barely even exist on the same plane as Him... but at the same time, we know and recognise that we have to live our lives, make the best of them that we can. We are to try and communicate and connect to Hashem. Despite our limitations, inabilities to reach God and capacities to err, not only does Hashem give us tremendous slack, He even allows us to approach him. There is a tacit recognition of this contradiction, a knowing nod at our limits and yet a willingness to overlook them.

But even such flexibility has limits. The Torah sets out very well-defined and specific ways in which the service of God was to be performed in the Bet Hamikdash. That Nadav and Avihu crossed the threshold, even though it was in good character, was deemed impermissible and warranted immediate punishment.

Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch notes that in the passage above, Aharon is taught the lesson of his sons' mistake so that he may not repeat it. Intriguingly, Rav Hirsch points out that Aharon is instructed to avoid entering different zones. One of these zones is 'קדש', which may be rendered as 'holy.' This is another way of saying that Aharon was prohibited from entering the Sanctuary unless he fulfilled certain conditions.

This expression for Sanctuary has a synonymous word in Hebrew; היכל. Although typically translated as meaning "hall" or "containing space", the root of this word means ability. (Which actually makes a lot of sense; ability is that which is contained within something.) Rav Hirsch points out that this is just the outermost of the three zones. While this is defined as the one that represents the height of human ability, the other two zones are more elevated than this. It would seem that simply to be able to enter the Bet Hamikdash, one had to be on a level at least approaching the highest of his ability.

The fact that Nadav and Avihu entered not just this outside zone, but the two inner ones also, in a state of mind that was not entirely suitable for worship of God meant that despite their good intentions, they had crossed a red line. While mistakes are to be tolerated, their actions betrayed a certain type of insensitivity to the innate sanctity of the place.

I think we can learn a lot from the episode. We all make mistakes. Some big, some small. Some intentional, some without our even knowing about them. As humans, we all take certain liberties with our religion. No one can pretend that he acts perfectly. I could write a long, long list of my errors, many of which would quite probably surprise you. We tend to be strong in areas in which others are weak, and weak where others are strong. But, at the end of the day, all of us must obey the boundaries the Torah sets when it comes to serving God. The actions of Nadav and Avihu may not have seemed such a terrible sin to us, but because of their stature and their understanding of the Torah's law, their death was assured.

At the beginning, of this D'var Torah, I wrote that the reason for Nadav and Avihu's death sentence was warranted isn't mentioned here. Maybe this is because we should understand that although we are to learn from their mistake, we aren't to apply the lessons learned in a to-literal way. Judasim recognises that not all people are the same, that our challenges and tasks are different. While we may not reach the level of the inner chambers of the Bet Hamikdash, where an elevated holiness presided, each of us must strive to take him or herself to at least the level of the היכל; the level of our own ability. Maybe we would be "luckier" than Nadav and Avihu and not receive the death penalty had we commited their sin, but that does not mean to say that we can allow ourselves to relent in our pursuit of making ourselves better people and better observers of the Torah's laws.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom :)

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