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April 10, 2014 - Parashat Aharei Mot

Aharei Mot
Jerome Chanes

Chapter 17 of Sefer Sh’mot (the Book of Exodus) begins by recalling the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. The parashah thence goes into the details of the behavior of the person who is about to enter the sacred precincts of the Mishkan (tabernacle) or the Temple, God’s house. The description of the service in the parashah is conventionally read as preparation for entering the sacred precincts, the kodesh ha-kodoshim, on Yom HaKippurim, but there is nothing in the text to indicate that this is so. More about this question below.

Why are the rules of the kodesh ha-kodoshim preceded by the comment about the death of Aaron’s sons? What do we learn from the proximity of the two texts? In the initial story of the death of Aaron’s sons, the reason given is that they “brought strange fire”, whatever that means. In our parashah, the reason given is “b’korvatam lifnei Hashem” (“in that they drew [too] close to God).” There are two ways to understand Nadav and Avihu. One is to say that they did something wrong, an inappropriate bringing of the k’toret, the incense, or because, according to the midrash, they were drunk. The other view, in my opinion the correct one, emerges from our parashah.

B’korvatam lifnei Hashem,” in the context of the text that follows, tells us that standing in the presence of God, the immediate presence, in the Mishkan, is dangerous. It’s a dangerous place to be. The Humash makes clear that there are things that need to be done that will allow us to be in God’s presence: one has to be invited; one gives a special sacrifice, which is a substitute or a proxy (“instead of my dying, the korban dies”); one dons special garments-all of which are central to Seder Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim, the priestly service on Yom Kippur.

Of interest is the fact that the text in our parashah (16:2-34) that describes priestly service for Yom Kippur does not mention Yom Kippur. The Gr”a, the Vilna Gaon, understood well the thrust of the chapter, along the lines of our discussion. The Torah in its initial statement in the parashah does not limit itself to Yom Kippur; any time the Kohen Gadol (the high priest) wanted to enter the sacred precincts he had to don special garments and bring korbanot (sacrifices). As a practical matter, the only time the Kohen Gadol entered the precincts was on Yom Kippur. The Mishkan and the Holy of Holies are truly special places, and they are dangerous places for which special preparation was needed. We now understand why the Humash precedes the Yom Kippur section with the statement on the death of Aaron’s sons: Nadav and Avihu did not heed the precautions explicitly outlined in the Torah. They entered a most dangerous place, unprepared.

One final point: amongst the disputes between the P’rushim and Tz’dukim, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, is the seemingly minor matter of where and when the k’toret (the incense) was to be ignited. (Mishnah Yoma 1:5) Not minor at all, this matter is the subject of a substantial machlokes (disagreement): The Tz’dukim were of the view that while it was outside, the k’toret was already burning, so that when the Kohen Gadol entered the Kodesh Ha-kodashim the smoke would be ready, as a protective, and he wouldn’t die. The P’rushim said that the priest walked in first, thence the fire was lit. My sense is that the Sadducees have the better of the argument, expressing the reality of the inherent danger of entering the sacred space without proper preparation. Shabbat shalom.
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Jerome Chanes is a long-time faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses on Modern Jewish History, Zionism, and Anti-Semitism.