Acharei Mot

You can find the rest of the parsha text on at Acharei Mot.

27 thoughts on “Acharei Mot

  1. Wendy

    From Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman

    Weekly Torah Portion

    Achrei Mot-Kedoshim
    In this weeks Torah portion the laws of Yom Kippur are given for the first time. The detailed description of the service of the High Priest is introduced by linking Yom Kippur to the death of Nadav and Avihu: “And God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they approached God and they died” (Leviticus 16:1). In the portion of Shemini we already began to discuss the connection between Nadav and Avihu and Yom Kippur and will continue here with additional insights.

    We already discussed that on one hand we need the passion and spontaneity of Nadav and Avihu, but we also have to be very sure that we remain within a Torah framework, or our very positive intentions can turn negative or destructive.

    In Kabbalah and Chassidut there is a concept called “run and return.” The dynamic “run” of the soul seeks to unite once again with God and its Divine source, while continually being committed to “return” to the earthly realm in order to fulfill the soul’s purpose in this world. It is a delicate matter to balance both tendencies. Most people either squelch their passion and enthusiasm to serve God with the fire of the soul, or it often happens that the ongoing experience of life simply grinds these tendencies down. On the other hand, many people are too tied to the “return” and are caught up in the materialism of the world and forget what it is to let their soul fly free. Or alternatively, others are too connected to the spiritual realms and lack the ability to function practically on a day to day basis.

    Nadav and Avihu when they entered the sanctuary with the fire pan and incense were “on fire” to draw close to God and lacked the firm commitment to “return,” and in fact they did not. This is why their actions cannot be lauded. Nonetheless, the High Priest on Yom Kippur in fact does the very same thing – enters the Holy of Holies with fire pan and incense. There must then be a positive aspect of their actions that we can learn from.

    The Torah relates the following regarding the High Priest: “Any person shall not be in the Tent of Meeting when he comes to provide atonement in the sanctuary… (Leviticus 16:17). The Slonimer Rebbe points out that one could understand from the wording of the verse that if no person should be in the sanctuary when the High Priest enters, then in essence the High Priest must reach a level of soul that is so nullified to God that he is able to fulfill the requirement that no person be there! He continues by bringing a teaching from Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berdichiv that for the atonement of Yom Kippur to truly work one must at some point during Yom Kippur reach this elevated consciousness where one’s ego becomes totally nullified.

    In a positive sense we can learn from Nadav and Avihu the passionate desire to be close to God and to unite with Him through nullifying our ego. This process of nullifying the ego is helped further by the prohibitions of eating, drinking, sexual relations, leather shoes and anointing, as well as the various customs of the day that make us feel like angels, not men.

    Now that we have no Temple, High Priest or service in the Temple, each person in a sense becomes a priest in performing the service. This is one of the fundamental understandings of our daily services. Especially on Yom Kippur during the Musaf prayer when we actually follow the High Priest through his service in the Temple do we have the opportunity to enter into the Holy of Holies, which is explained to be the most inner point of the heart and soul. In that deeply private place we meet God.

    Despite bowing at the knee many times a day during various parts of our prayer services the only time we actually get down on our knees with face to the ground is during the service of Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are taught that this is a unique opportunity to give permission to our souls to “run” towards God with no fear of not “returning.” A moment of true ego nullification is critical in orienting our soul to its true relationship with God. Paradoxically, it is the truly humble who have the greatest power to act in this world in a holy and effective way. Moses is the prime example of one who reached the pinnacle of both humble service of God while serving as a forceful leader.

    We need to take the positive elements of Nadav and Avihu, while at the same time committing ourselves to apply the high moments of spiritual experience in a manner that brings rectification to the world. In that way their action is uplifted and rectified.

  2. Wendy

    From Rav Kook

    Acharei Mot: The Triple Measure of Incense

    A Cloud in the Holy of Holies

    The high priest was permitted to enter the inner sanctuary of the Temple only one day in the year — on Yom Kippur.

    “Speak to your brother Aaron, that he may not enter the sanctuary within the partition at any time… so that he may not die, for I appear over the Ark cover in a cloud.” (Lev. 16:2)

    What exactly was this cloud inside the Holy of Holies? In Yoma 53a, the Talmud explains that this was a cloud of incense smoke. The ketoret (incense) played a central role in the holy service of Yom Kippur. Only after burning the ketoret inside the Holy of Holies was the high priest allowed to enter, as it says:

    “Then he shall take a fire pan full of burning coals … together with both hands’ full of finely pulverized incense … so that the cloud from the incense will envelope the ark cover.” (Lev. 16:12-13)

    What is this special connection between the ketoret and the Yom Kippur service? And why did it need to be finely pulverized, more than the incense that was offered on other days?

    Beyond Time

    Once a year, the kohanim would prepare an entire year’s supply of ketoret — 368 portions. Why 368? One portion for each day of the year, plus an extra three portions for Yom Kippur. Why did Yom Kippur require an extra three measures of incense?

    The central theme of Yom Kippur is teshuvah (repentance) and kapparah (atonement). What is remarkable about these concepts is that they allow us to rewrite the past. Teshuvah is not just about attaining forgiveness for past misdeeds. The Sages taught (Yoma 86b) that there is a level of elevated teshuvah by which “sins are transformed into merits.” They further explained that “itzumo shel yom mechapeir” (Yoma 85b) — the day of Yom Kippur itself, even without the Temple service, has powers of atonement . What gives Yom Kippur this unique ability to transcend time and change history?

    Within Yom Kippur rests the inner content of the entire year. The Torah employs an exceptional phrase to describe Yom Kippur: “achat bashanah” — “once in the year” (Lev. 16:34). Yom Kippur contains a singular quality that illuminates during the entire year. Thus the paradox: the special nature of the Day of Atonement appears achat — once a year, within the framework of time — but at the same time, it is bashanah — it influences and elevates the entire year, transcending the normal boundaries of time.

    We can distinguish between three aspects of Yom Kippur and its special relationship to time. First is the special nature of the day itself, with its own unique inner holiness. Second is the quality by which it can repair and redeem the previous year. And third is its influence to prepare and elevate the coming year. Since Yom Kippur affects time in three directions — present, past, and future – the Yom Kippur service requires three extra measures of ketoret, above and beyond its quota as one of the 365 days of the year.

    Extra Fine

    Why did the ketoret of Yom Kippur require special treatment, being finely pulverized the day before Yom Kippur?

    Despite the fact that incense engages our most refined sense (see Berachot 43b), the daily ketoret is offered witin the framework of time, and thus relates to our physical reality. But on Yom Kippur, the incense needs to be “dakah min hadakah” — it is returned to the mortar to be pounded until it becomes a fine powder. The ketoret of Yom Kippur must match the singular holiness of the day. It must be extraordinarily refined, unfettered by the limitations of physicality and our material needs. Only then will the ketoret correspond to Yom Kippur’s lofty images of abstract spiritual thought and holy aspirations.

    (adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I pp. 139-141)

    Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison

  3. Wendy

    From Rabbi James Stone Goodman

    Sixth Portion of Leviticus
    April 22nd, 2008 | Author: Administrator
    O holy Shabbes Inspiration Acharei Mot
    Maqam Hijaz* D E-flat F# G

    *a maqam is a musical figure, a partial scale, a modal form, cognate of the Hebrew makom, or place, used this week to mark sad occasions, on this, the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu

    We have to begin with sadness I suppose
    in the maqam
    the hijaz
    it’s always reserved for sad stories
    the death of Sara
    the shame of the golden calf
    the spies and their failure to understand
    the Sabbath before Tisha B’Av (first portion of Deuteronomy)
    the saddest day of the Jewish year
    all maqam hijaz.

    There’s plenty to be unhappy about
    consider the mother of the pitiful Nadav and Avihu
    who die too close to the Source
    with their strange fire
    they brought something unfamiliar
    in another generation they would be kings for it
    their mother is not mentioned
    Elisheva bat Aminadav
    everyone in her family has ascended
    her brother in law Moses like a king
    her brother Nachshon like a prince
    her husband to high priest
    her sons –
    we have no sense that
    loss of our loved ones is God’s gain
    we have no sense that this is consolation
    we are hollering for our beloveds
    whenever they leave us

    Elisheva bat Aminadav is not happy

    She chooses silence. [Lev. R]

    Get up I tell her.
    Rend your clothes then howl out of your silence
    throw up your disgust into the dust
    let everyone know how you feel
    some with words some without

    let them know what you think of their successes
    the positions they hold
    their responsibilities

    Elisheva bat Aminadav
    is howling for all the mothers
    and the fathers who are mothers
    who love no crown more than the crown
    of motherhood

    tell them you are not getting on with it
    until the muscle of this sadness is gone from your hands
    and the music gone from your mouth
    all sound gone from your ears

    only when there is no memory
    of loss

    will your loss be quieted.

    jsg, usa

  4. Wendy

    From AJR/CA
    Parshat Acharei Mot
    Torah Reading for Week of April 10-16, 2011

    “Jewish Integrity”
    By Dr. J.B. Sacks, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

    From whom can we learn to be holy? This week begins the holiness code, in which we find out how our Israelite ancestors can realize the biblical injunction for us to become a mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, “a community of priests and a holy people.”

    In the midst of laying out Divine guidelines for our holy behavior, we read, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow my laws: I the Eternal am your G-d.” (Leviticus 18:2-4)

    The Sefat Emet (1847-1905) understands that we are not to imitate Egypt and Canaan in all our deeds, even in innocent matters such as clothing styles. Indeed, the Sifra, an early midrash on Leviticus, posits that this passage forbids Jews to attend the bloody entertainments of the Roman amphitheater, to practice various superstitious customs of the gentile world, and even to imitate gentile styles of hairdressing. These sources suggest that it is not just when non-Jewish practices offend our values that we should reject them, but even in seemingly innocuous cases of fashion, attendance at sports events or going to vote.

    Nonetheless, we hear counter-voices to this tradition. The Talmud states that “the law of the land is the law” (Gittin 10b); in other words, Jews are responsible for following the secular laws of the jurisdiction in which they reside. This clearly undermines our verse. The champion of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), contends that the injunction only holds in some contexts, maintaining that we may “imitate the nations among who we live in things that are based on reason, but not on things relating to religion or superstition.”

    Beyond this, I know that my own sense of self owes a great deal to what I have experienced and absorbed from the diverse communities in which I have lived and traveled. Seeing how mega-church communities welcome newcomers has taught me how to relate to spiritually unengaged Jews. Seeing the gay male community’s response to HIV, teaches me more about the need and profundity of community. Lyrics of popular music, Motown and more, have helped me discern my own Jewish values. Barack Obama’s leadership style reinforces my appreciation for dialogue and intellectual curiosity, even when I find myself in disagreement.

    The secular world is not contrary to Judaism. The larger picture of what’s spiritually true and godly is not confined to what takes a Jewish-specific form. Moreover, outside of Chassidic enclaves, all generations now and future only know an intercultural landscape. A religion that asks them to build fences against rich and interesting outside influences relegates itself to irrelevance. Not all merits adoption or adaptation, of course. Nonetheless, by engaging the world creatively, spiritually and responsibly, we add to Tradition and thereby assure its greatness. Then, too, by bringing Judaism to bear when we walk in the world, we can help make the world a better place.

    Our challenge, then, is to work not merely for Jewish survival but Jewish integrity and glory. We have and can absorb the outside perspectives without losing a sense of what is most valuable about our own traditions and teachings. We can validate all facets of our complex identities in the diverse world that HaShem forged and sanctioned. Who is holy? S/he who learns from everyone and everything. This is our challenge. This is our honor. May it also be our blessing.

    Shabbat shalom!

  5. Wendy

    From American Jewish World Service
    Dvar Tzedek > 5771 > Acharei Mot

    This week, we are pleased to welcome guest writer, Dvar Tzedek alumna Rachel Farbiarz.

    Parshat Acharei Mot details the elaborate rituals performed by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Among the several segments of strange choreography, perhaps none is more bewildering than that of the two he-goats, donated by the Israelite community as sin offerings.

    Lots were cast to determine the goats’ fates, with chance selecting one goat “for the Lord” and the other “for Azazel.”1 The Lord’s goat was slaughtered and sacrificed, while the other was consigned to a more elusive fate. The High Priest laid his hands on the buck, confessing “over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins.”2 The animal was then led “off to the wilderness for Azazel.”3 “Thus,” the parshah explains, did the goat “carry on it all [Israel’s] iniquities to an inaccessible region.”4

    The identity of the mysterious “Azazel”—mentioned in Scripture only here—has rankled commentators both ancient and modern. Defined variously as a specific location in the desert, a more general geographical descriptor or the incarnation of a supernatural, demonic being, Azazel in all its renderings denotes a destination beyond the pale of the good and the ordered world. The terminus of “Azazel” is a state of forbidding uncultivation, a menacing realm that lurks outside the boundaries of acceptable human society.5

    Traditionally, the text’s spare account of the animal’s dedication to Azazel is fleshed out with detail gleaned from Talmudic sources. The goat is led, the Sages elaborate, to a desolate cliff in the wilderness and is pushed from the precipice by its erstwhile shepherd. As it tumbles down the slope, the unlucky buck is dashed to pieces.6 And with the goat’s demise, Israel’s sins are likewise crushed—mangled beyond recognition, dashed to pieces themselves.

    There is, however, a less common tale told of the goat’s fate. In this account the animal is led to a remote corner of the desert and is simply set free.7 The sin-laden beast’s dedication is accomplished not by its destruction, but by its abandonment to a life in the unknown beyond. Unlike its counterpart that is sacrificed to atone for Israel’s sins, the goat “for Azazel” achieves Israel’s expiation by being “left standing alive before the Lord.”8

    It is from this quieter account, I would propose, that a fuller, more nuanced portrait of the process of atonement emerges—one in which sin is at once both obliterated and sustained. The sacrifice of the goat “for the Lord” speaks to an aspiration to purge ourselves completely of wrongdoing, to excise it like a tumor from a healthy body. The abandonment of the goat “for Azazel,” by contrast, speaks to a different reality: Sin stays with us. Our past failures coexist with our present efforts to undo them. Our wrongdoings live in parallel to us, a persistent reminder of the perilous and porous border that separates the wilderness of sin from the good and ordered life to which we aspire.

    Coexistence with our sins enables us, of course, to learn from them. They serve as signposts of our prejudices and insecurities, markers of how we can always do better. But the presence of our sins, embodied in the wandering goat, serves more than just a cautionary function. The abandoned animal attests as well to the possibility of a good life that can be achieved alongside the persistence of sin. A righteous life, in this conception, is not one that is blameless or flawless. It is not one that demands moral perfection. It is, rather, one that assumes our failures, and expects transcendence both in spite of, and alongside, them. This is a moral life in which the inaccessibility of perfection serves not to paralyze, but to prod and ultimately empower.

    Too often we sabotage the emergence of our better selves by narrowly focusing on the limiting nature of our flaws. Too often we fail to do the right thing out of a fatalistic sense that our transgressions necessarily undo our nobler efforts. Indeed, we recognize the grip of this destructive reasoning in the barriers many perceive to adopting ethical consumption practices. Why shun diamonds that help fuel brutal conflicts when one has not committed to purchasing coffee that is fairly-traded? How can one insist on using wood that is a product of sustainably-managed forests when one’s rug may very well have been made with child labor? What is the value in doing good, such thinking goes, when one is so mired in past and present failures and omissions?

    Azazel’s wandering goat helps us internalize that these are not either-or choices. The ability to accept the presence of our sins even as we atone for them can prove to be a liberation—empowering us to reject the paralyzing allure of perfection and replace it instead with the messier inconsistencies of a life of good works and righteous action.

    1 Leviticus 16:8.

    2 Leviticus 16:21.

    3 Leviticus 16:9.

    4 Leviticus 16:21.

    5 For a good summary of Azazel’s various interpretations, see: Pinker, Aaron. “A Goat To Go To Azazel.” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures vol. 7, 2007: 2-25.

    6 Bialik, H.N. and Y.H. Rawnitzky (eds.). The Book of Legends. New York: Schocken, 1992. p. 180. Digesting Tractate Yoma chapters 1-7.

    7 Rashbam on Leviticus 16:10.

    8 Leviticus 16:10.

  6. Wendy

    From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat


    The high priest’s garb was whitest linen
    and separation was what made him holy.
    He needed to be clean to make the offering,
    to step into the shrine behind the curtain.
    There was risk in excess and in being naked
    and daily he walked the line between death and life.

    He must have prepared to do it his whole life.
    He knew how to gird himself with linen,
    so he wouldn’t even accidentally be naked;
    how to sluice himself with water and become holy,
    stay safe even when he dared to broach the curtain.
    What mattered was how he made the people’s offering —

    a bleating goat, a bull. The point of offering
    was the atavistic way a single life
    could substitute. Inside that holy curtain
    it was his only job to dress in linen
    and make expiation, calling on all that’s holy.
    One Hebrew word for “shrewd” also means “naked”

    (like the snake who rendered Adam and Chava naked…)
    Is that why we circumscribe touch and vision, offering
    this thicket of instructions for becoming holy?
    How Noah’s sons transgressed: exposing his life
    instead of shrouding it respectfully in linen.
    The terror of realizing that behind the curtain

    is always just ourselves. What could curtain
    the shock of waking to that dream of being naked?
    I can’t blame my ancestors for preferring the linen
    weave of regulations, familiar ways of offering
    contrition for iniquity and gratitude for life.
    A nation of priests, we’re commanded to be holy

    now as we were then, so what is holy?
    What if I choose to draw aside the curtain,
    if I aim to dwell in God’s tent every day of my life?
    Am I allowed to stand here even if I’m naked
    bearing my heart, the melodies I bring as offerings,
    the weave of my tallit, the rush of linen?

    In linen or in leather I believe we’re holy.
    Bring yourself as offering. Part the gauzy curtain.
    Trust yourself to be naked. Emerge into life.

  7. Wendy

    ~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~

    Acharey Mot

    (After the Death)

    LEVITICUS 16:1 – 18:30

    We are given a description of the Yom Kippur ritual and then laws concerning the holiness of our diet and sexual relationships.


    OUR PORTION BEGINS with a description of a complicated ceremony of purification performed once a year by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. The purpose of all expiatory rites was to maintain the purity of the sanctuary, preparing it as a place where the Divine Presence could dwell.
    Understanding that the Mishkan can be found inside us and that the High Priest also resides there, Acharey Mot can be received as a clear reminder of the responsibility to keep our hidden sanctuaries functioning. The inner Mishkan functions as our place of access to the infinite flow. This is the place where we can touch God inside us, and the presence of God can touch our lives moment to moment.
    Some of our ancestors realized that a ritual of purification performed just once a year might not be enough to keep us open to the Divine flow. They instituted the celebration of Yom Kippur Katan (“Little Day of Atonement”) each month on the day before the new moon. This transformed the dark time of the month into a time of purification so that the sanctuary within could be cleared and a space could be prepared for the Divine Presence as the moon returned to the night sky.

    THE BLESSING of Acharey Mot is the opportunity to purify our inner sanctuaries at regular intervals, whenever necessary… once a year, once a month, every week… or perhaps each night. There will always be imperfection,
    mistakes in our human stories. And after seeing and speaking the truth, there will always be Divine forgiveness.

    AFTER DESCRIBING THIS RITUAL of purification, Acharey Mot continues with instructions about holiness in eating and in sexual relations. Decisions about what we eat and with whom we engage in intimacy must be made as part of our pursuit of holiness, which means our motives must be pure, our intentions clear, and the implications considered regarding our actions and their effects on the whole.
    Accepting the blessing of God’s Presence within us means that we must be continually purifying the body as Divine dwelling place. We do this by honoring the holiness of the physical body and by guarding against its desecration in regards to habits of eating and sexual behavior.


    DURING THE RITUAL OF PURIFICATION, two goats are brought. One is designated “for God” and is slaughtered as a Chatat, a “sin offering.” The other is marked for Azazel. After laying upon its head all the sins and transgressions of the people, the second goat is sent into the wilderness to Azazel. Whoever or whatever Azazel is, he holds the key to our purification.

    SOMEONE WOULD BE DESIGNATED for this job of escorting the goat to Azazel in the wilderness. He was the one charged to move between the civilized world and the wilderness. I’ve always imagined myself as that “ish itti” – the “man of the moment” – performing that job.
    The designated escort knew this secret: All of our sins can be traced to the wild part in us being lost, misdirected or suppressed. If the wild, the ecstatic in us is not honored and allowed its vitality, it will find outlet in cruelty and violence. When the “ish itti” escorted the goat with all of Israel’s sins on it in to the wilderness, he was returning that misdirected energy back to its source.

    OUR SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE is to find that wild place inside us and through ecstatic practice, give it voice and space and an honored place in our lives. If we do not, it will get twisted and become a destructive force. Returning the goat to Azazel is allowing the wild part of us its wilderness, its place to be free.

    1 Translation by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Yedabber Pi: A Weekday Siddur–As I Can I Say It (2006), p.35.

    For Guideline for Practice please click link to website.

  8. Wendy

    From Reb Zalman Legacy Project

    Installing “Ought” In “Is,” Halevay
    The following text by Reb Zalman is from this week’s Torah portion, Shabbos Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. [Notes by Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor]:

    “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.” (Leviticus 19:17).

    Show hir how they showed you too of your wrong and they rebuked you when you sinned, for you and s/he are together in this regard.

    [NOTE: The starting point for rebuke is compassion and empathy. My friend’s transgression is, perhaps, something I have done, or like something I have done.]

    “… et amitecha,” i.e., im amitecha / together with your folk.

    [NOTE: Seeing yourself as not greater than is the ground in which the learning may be planted.]

    (Baba Metziah 59a) “Am She-itcha batorah” / the people that are with you in Torah.

    [NOTE: The discussion in Baba Metzia deals with proper ways of treating one another. The Talmud reference cited is based on Leviticus 25:17, “and a man shall not wrong his fellow,” עֲמִתוֹ = עֲם אִתּוֹ (i.e. “his fellow” is expounded as a contraction meaning “the people that are with you.”)

    Having “stood at Sinai,” we share an intention to be good, to do things appropriately.]

    “You shall surely rebuke your fellow.” This way you will give hir energy without depressing hir. You show hir that the greatest sin that can be is to know that teshuvah is a possibility and s/he didn’t do teshuvah.

    [NOTE: Teshuvah means return or repentance and illustrated by, 1) Feeling remorse / regret, 2) recognizing / acknowledging those feelings, 3) asking for forgiveness of those we have wronged or of God, 4) deciding that if we find ourselves in the same situation again, next time, we will act differently.]

    This is how it is explained to us by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (his memory be blessed),

    [NOTE: Likutei Moharan, Ed. mahadora batra, siman 112]:

    “If you believe that sins can spoil things, you must also believe that through teshuvah they can be fixed.”

    So show hir that having made a similar mistake this is what you did to fix it. This is how you can strengthen him and empower him.

    Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
    from Yishmiru Daat (2009 revision),
    “Parashat Kedoshim,” p. 33

  9. Wendy

    From Melissa Carpenter

    Achrei Mot: Cloud Cover

    God said to Moses: Speak to Aaron, your brother, so he won’t come in at just any time to the holy place within the curtained enclosure, to the front of the atonement-cover that is upon the ark—so he will not die; because I will appear in a cloud over the atonement-cover. (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:2)

    He will take a pan-full of glowing charcoals of fire from the side of altar facing God, and two handfuls of incense of fine fragrant spices, and he will bring them into the curtained enclosure. He will place the incense upon the fire, in front of God; and he will conceal with a cloud of the incense the atonement-cover that is over the Affidavit (of God)—so he will not die. (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:12-13)

    anan = cloud

    ha-kapporet = the place of atonement; the lid covering the ark in the Holy of Holies

    ha-eidut = the Affidavit, the written testimony or affirmation (of God) kept in the ark (presumed to be the Ten Commandments); the reminder

    In the sky, a cloud is part of the weather. When a cloud comes down and becomes fog, it limits how far and how much you can see. English, like Biblical Hebrew, also uses the word “cloud” or anan for anything suspended in the air that limits vision, including smoke from incense.

    God began “appearing”, making its presence manifest, in a pillar of cloud (by day) and fire (by night) back in the book of Exodus/Shemot, before the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea. At the end of Exodus, when Moses and the Israelites finish making a portable sanctuary for God, “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory (kavod) of God filled the sanctuary.” The last lines of the book are: “When the cloud rose up from over the sanctuary, the children of Israel set off on all their journeys. And if the cloud did not rise up, they did not set off until the day it did rise up. For the cloud of God was over the sanctuary by day, and fire would be there by night, in the eyes of all the house of Israel on all their journeys.” So God’s presence routinely manifests as a cloud hanging over the sanctuary. And the “glory” or presence (kavod) of God also appears inside the Holy of Holies, above the cover of the ark itself.

    In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, when Aaron’s two oldest sons bring incense into the Holy of Holies, a fire from God appears and consumes them. This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot (“after the death”) refers back to the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. After this death, God tells Moses to tell Aaron, the high priest, that he can’t come into the Holy of Holies at just any old time, like his brother Moses. If Aaron tries to enter on the wrong day, or without all the ritual precautions, he will die like his two oldest sons—“because I will appear in a cloud over the atonement cover”.

    By the time of the second temple in Jerusalem, which fell in 70 C.E., there were two opinions about the meaning of this verse. The majority opinion was that there were two clouds in the Holy of Holies on the day of Yom Kippur. The “glory” of God appeared as a cloud over the ark. When the high priest entered, he carried in a pan of embers and a ladle containing two handfuls of incense. He set down the pan on the ground, between the poles of the ark, and he threw the incense on it. Then the fragrant smoke rose in a column like a palm tree, spread out over the ceiling, and gradually filled the curtained enclosure, until the cloud of incense obscured the cloud of God’s “glory”.

    This seems like a straightforward reading of the text in Leviticus. But the Tzeddokim, later called the Sadducees, held the opinion that there was only one cloud, the cloud of incense. Therefore the high priest should pour the incense spices on the pan of embers before he entered the Holy of Holies, and carry the cloud of smoke in with him. That way he would never be able to see the cover of the ark, not even when he first entered. This was important because the book of Exodus says no one can see God and live.

    Arguments against the one-cloud hypothesis of the Tzeddokim abound, from the Talmud to orthodox commentary today. One of my favorite arguments is that Nadav and Avihu brought their fire-pans into the Holy of Holies with the incense already smoking, and that was the mistake that killed them. Another argument is that if a high priest started burning the incense outside the Holy of Holies, it would be for his own self-gratification; he would enjoy the fragrance himself before bringing it to God to enjoy. I think this argument assumes that high priests had strong constitutions; the Talmud (Yoma 39b) says the smell of the incense on Yom Kippur spread out so far from the temple in Jerusalem, it made the goats in Jericho sneeze.

    (I wonder about the two goats chosen by lot on Yom Kippur, one to be sacrificed on the altar to God, the other to receive the sins of the people and be led out into the wilderness of Azazel. Did they both sneeze?)

    I can understand why the high priest is only able to enter the Holy of Holies once a year, with much ritual preparation. Getting that close to God-consciousness, to perceiving the unity of everything without the distinctions and separations that are part of normal “left-brained” human thought, is indeed a dangerous enterprise requiring good preparation.

    I can also understand why God appears in a cloud. We are finite creatures; when we try to understand the infinite, our internal perception is clouded. But why should a human being who is acting as a high priest create his own cloud of incense, in front of God’s presence? Why make things any cloudier than they already are?

    My only answer is that this intimate incense-offering takes place on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when we ask God for forgiveness for everything we have done wrong over the past year. When we ask for that level of divine, inner forgiveness, it’s not enough to know that our views of God are clouded. We need to know that we can’t see ourselves clearly, either: neither our souls, nor our actions, nor how we look to others. Like God, our own selves are manifest only in a cloud. Yet somehow, we move through the fog of life and try to be better people and try to serve God, whatever “God” might mean to each of us.

    Even if our goats sneeze.

  10. Wendy

    From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
    Mystery of Azazel

    I am writing this from memory sitting on a hill in a Wilderness somewhere in the United States of America.

    I am a guest here, the Wilderness, that is clear to me. I asked the animals, the brush rangers, the bottom dwellers to allow me to squat on their ground, to sing the holy song to G*d. It was pretty, but it was not why I came.
    On the fourth day, this day, I began to ask for forgiveness. I sank deeper into silence and an animal I cannot identify wandered by and nibbled from a loaf of bread I carried with me.

    Then the animal spoke. “It’s about forgiveness, isn’t it. . .” the animal said. “Yes,” I said, “it’s about forgiveness.”

    “Give me your burdens,” the animal said, “I am a load bearing animal, I am a yoked animal, I submit to the yoke of your burdens and I carry them gladly into the Wilderness.”

    So I took my burdens, my self consciousness, my separation, my isolation, my flight, my self-fulness, my fear, especially my fear, everything that separates me from G*d and from all that I love the most, and I laid them on the shoulders of this animal, and I watched as the animal disappeared into the hills.

    I lifted up my hands and I looked up and said, to the trees, to the sky, to the stones, to the dirt, to the dirt especially, to the mud:

    “Is this the way it works?”

    From far away I heard,

    “Yes, this is precisely the way it works.”

    James Stone Goodman


    Leviticus 16:8-10: and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for G*d and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for G*d, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before G*d to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

    This is the link to the Maqam Project You Tube with Rabbi James Stone Goodman Reciting.

  11. Wendy

    From AJR/CA

    Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim
    Torah Reading for Week of April 14-20, 2013
    “The Aftermath”
    By Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D., President, AJRCA

    More often than not, we read these two Torah portions, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, on the same Shabbat. Notice the pairing of the words, which can be read: “After the deaths [are] holy ones” or “holy things.”

    In the sequence of the Torah, the reference is to the death of Aaron’s sons, who were recognized as holy ones indeed – they were anointed priests – but had acted impulsively, perhaps in a moment of religious ecstasy. As a result, G-d warns Aaron not to come into the holy areas at all times, and in fact to the Holy of Holies only once a year. Then G-d gives the rules for Yom Kippur. It seems important that strictures be established to prevent what, at the time of the golden calf episode, was referred to as “the people breaking loose” (Exodus 32.25). Their energy had to be constrained and redirected.

    The specific regulations for the priests are followed in the next parsha by commands that applied to everyone: “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them….” Repeatedly, at the beginning of chapters 18, 19, and 20 of Vayikra, the whole people is called to responsibility. Kedoshim spells out a whole series of commandments that apply to all aspects of our lives. To our inner life – “Do not hate your brother in your heart” and to our speech – “Do not go about as a tale-bearer.” Intimate relationships are singled out as important in the laws of forbidden unions, while even the details of clothing, shatnes (prohibited mixtures of wool and linen) are discussed. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch notes, concerning many of these, that they bring attention to “the law of l’mino,” which we know from Genesis as “according to its kind.” Each and every species and type must, Hirsch says, be respected and honored.

    “Holy things,” we must conclude, are not about ecstasy but rather, about embodiment. Attention to the details of the remarkable order of creation, and our relationship to it, goes hand in hand with mindfulness about our own attitudes and words, lest they in some way mar our relations with others. Holiness concerns our attention to an interwoven web of relationships to things, people, and G-d. We might say, in twenty-first century language, it has to do with being fully present and committed.

    But there is more. “After the deaths, holiness”: holy acts MUST be done. An even fuller commitment to life is the only thing that can save us collectively from the finality of death.

    How sad that here, in this week of Acharei Mot – Kedoshim, we had to face yet another tragedy, the deaths, and bodily mutilations, of dozens of people who were celebrating life, health, and the gift of the human body. Yet we also saw that after these deaths, not a moment was lost: people rushed to save others. After such an abomination of evil, human beings again take up the cause of life.

    So many times, after a tragic loss, families and friends band together to create something that will make the world a better place. Judea Pearl is an outstanding example, for the life-enhancing work he and his family have undertaken after the murder of his son Daniel; but one could name many more. And in the Jewish calendar, we see a parallel dynamic. In this same week, we remembered other times when lives were lost– Yom HaZikaron. And after commemorating those deaths, we remembered also Yom HaAtzma’ut, the effort to establish something better in the world — may it be the beginning of our redemption.

    Violent deaths should never happen. But when we are witnesses to such evil, we must engage even more fully with the work of perfecting the world.

    After the deaths – holy things. Holy consciousness, holy acts, that bring compassion and courage into the world once more.

  12. Wendy

    From AJR/CA

    Parshat Acharei Mot: Shabbat HaGadol
    Torah Reading for Week of April 6-12, 2014

    “Acharei Mot: After the Deaths”
    By Dr Tamar Frankiel

    The deaths referred to are those of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, which we read about in Parshat Shemini three weeks ago. In the Torah, our relation to death comes up several times in the portions leading up to Pesach. There was Shabbat Parah, in which we read about the red heifer, which was used to purify from contact with death. The startling deaths of Aaron’s sons were described, and now alluded to again. The sections about the strange skin condition known as tzaarat, often translated ‘leprosy’ (though it is not the modern disease of that name), are also associated with death. “Let her not be as a corpse!” exclaimed Aaron when Miriam was stricken with tzaarat. Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom suggests, indeed, that this condition was so feared because the afflicted person’s skin became scaly like that of a dead person.

    Purification from nearness to death was, clearly, a major concern of the Israelite ritual system. In this week’s parsha, the allusion to deaths is immediately followed by instructions about the priestly observance of Yom Kippur and the heavy restrictions on entering the sanctuary. Even the high priest was in danger “lest he die”. The impurity associated with death was so great that priests had to avoid the dead except in the case of close relatives. We still associate Yom Kippur and atonement for sin with the “Book of Life” in contrast to the book of death. Ritually, we still have the custom of washing our hands when we leave a cemetery.

    Other portions of the Israelite purity system allude to separating death from life — meat from milk, for example. Many of the forbidden animals are predators or carrion-eaters. That may be why most insects are forbidden – the “vegetarian” grasshopper family providing an exception. Milgrom again holds that the very act of limiting the types of animals that can be slaughtered for food, supports the honoring of life.

    The message is: G-d is the source of life, and one’s access to that source could – almost certainly would — be compromised if one does not maintain the boundary between life and death, if one does not cleanse oneself from the touch of death.

    We indeed live in a different world. Death has lost its sting – it is no longer regarded as a contagious, threatening presence.

    And yet certain thoughts invade us when death appears, especially the death of one close to us, or an unexpected or shocking death. Our collective thoughts about those lost on the Malaysian airliner, or those buried in the Washington mudslide, are intense, pervasive. The shooting rampage at Ft. Hood by a man distraught over his mother’s recent death — death generating death. I wonder what comes after the deaths? Were the ancient rituals designed not to prevent death or ward it off, but to heal from the despondency and fear that accompany death? Was the preparation for Pesach to make sure, that as we enter into our festival of freedom, that we are open to the joy of that freedom?

    If so, then I would ask, what about the ritual we still perform, before and during Pesach: cleaning our homes from chametz, and not eating it for the entire holiday? Does this ritual also relate to our psychological condition? In our mystical and Hasidic commentaries, chametz is widely understood to represent ego – the inflated ego that parallels the risen bread. The Talmud asks, what prevents us from doing the divine will? The answer: “the yeast in the dough.”

    Leavened bread and, by extension, other leavened foods, are a unique class of foods produced by a natural chemical process that changes the nature and taste of the food significantly, but not by cooking, rather by fermenting. Today we say of a person who nurtures a fantasy reality that “he lives in a bubble.” Bubbles are exactly what is created by fermentation. Metaphorically, we might say that the ferment of complex emotions creates expectations and fantasies that take us away from a simple, direct relation to life. Death may bring despondency; the inflation of the ego creates a false reality that equally blocks us from G-d.

    By calling us not only to leave behind bread and cookies and cakes, oatmeal and cheerios, crackers and donuts, Danish pastry and Napoleons, spaghetti, macaroni, and linguini, Pesach also calls us to depart from displays of arrogance, temper, demand, inequality, expectation, blame, unfeeling behavior, flattery, partiality, disregard of others, indifference, vindictiveness, idle curiosity, slander, gossip, contrivance, self-righteousness, and all inflated images of ourselves. While we are at it, we can also reject the egoistic emotions that generate those behaviors, such as desire for approval, desire to be special or exalted, self-doubt, self-pity, excessive grief, infatuation, possessiveness, pride, hatred, guilt, envy, jealousy, boredom, ambition, and resentment.

    The approach to Pesach is to cast out depression and fear, so that we can be ready to take the risk of freedom, come what may. At the same time, Pesach asks that we nullify the ego. We come to the Seder not to show off our erudition or our gourmet cuisine, not to play to the crowd or retire into smug aloofness.

    Who knows what might happen if we did that? This Pesach, let us come together with family and friends, without pretense like the simple matzah, simply ourselves.

  13. Wendy

    From Jewish Sacred Aging

    Acharei-Mot/K’doshim: The Scapegoat and Letting Go….As If!!!!!

    Rabbi Richard Address

    This week’s double portion presents us with a myriad of issues and topics that should occupy any Torah study class for hours. A series of powerful laws and prohibitions make up Leviticus 18 and the always meaningful digest of ritual, moral, ethical and social laws comprise one of the most famous of Chapters, Leviticus 19. But the portion begins in Leviticus 16 with the description of a rather interesting ritual, performed by the High Priest, that set the stage for the day we know as Yom Kippur. The expiation of sin was performed via the use of two goats; one kept as a sacrifice and marked for God; and one, symbolic of the sins and wrong doings of the community, which was expelled from the camp. The ritual is related in the opening verses of Leviticus 16:1-10. The goat that was expelled, was designated for “Azazel”; who according to some, referred to a demon whose job it was to entice people to sin.
    What also is sometimes overlooked is the opening of the portion which tells us that this event took place “after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God” (Lev.16:1) Could there be a link? What may this mean for us? As we get older and often look back upon events in our life, we often reflect on that old challenge of “if only I had done this!” Sometime we carry with us hurts and feelings that hold us back, that nag at us and prevent us from moving forward in our life. Sometimes these feelings get so intense that they cause illness as we internalize them. We cannot “let go” of them.
    In a discussion on this passage in my Torah study class this week, we spent some time on the symbolism of that goat that was expelled from the camp. It carried the weight of past sins, of wrongdoings of the community. It was sent away in this rather elaborate ceremony. Could this also represent for us the need to “let go” of the past sins and hurts and wrongdoings that posses us? Indeed, is this not what much of modern Yom Kippur is? Can this be another way that Judaism says to us that to be bound by past mistakes, hurts and choices that went wrong is to be held hostage by the past. SOme of these choices and events we may have participated in, some we encountered in a random way, as part of living life.This has particular meaning for people dealing with death, like Aaron and his sons. One of the meanings can be that there comesa time to cease moorning and to enter back into life. To hold on to the “what was” is to court illness of body, mind and soul. Thus, we are instructed to “let go” of that which we cannot control, of pasts that we cannot change and maybe relationships and situations that can no longer be viable. Again, change is a constant aspect of life and try as we might, we cannot “stop” the clock of time, go back and re write what once was. So, we create a means to “let go” of those things that bind us.
    This can be liberating. Once again, the choice to move forward rests with us.
    Shabbat shalom,
    Rabbi Richard F Address


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