You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Acharei Mot.
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE MEANING OF ‘LIFE’ – Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
What is the meaning of life?
No, I am not asking you the ultimate philosophical question. Not yet, anyway. For now, I am simply asking for some semantic help. Tell me – what exactly does “life” mean in the following verse:
You shall keep my rules and my laws. A person shall do them and live by them – I am the Lord. (Lev. 18:5)
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י ה
That phrase: “and live by them” – in Hebrew, “וחי בהם,” just two words, six letters long – has generated a mountain of commentary. What does “living by” (or ‘through,’ or ‘with’) the laws mean? Does keeping the commandments ensure a long life? Or an especially fulfilling life? Or is it just that following the laws is the right way to live? Every rabbi who put his quill to ink, it seems, has some novel interpretation of what “life” means here.
Two of these interpretations, in particular, are the best known. The first forms the classic Jewish legal principle of pikuach nefesh, the idea that (almost) any commandment can be violated in order to save a life. Here is the source of that derivation in the Talmud:
From where do we learn that one can break the sabbath in order to save a life? Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: “and he shall live by them,” and not die by them. (Yoma 85a-b)
מניין לפקוח נפש שדוחה את השבת …א“ר יהודה אמר שמואל …(ויקרא יח, ה) וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם
Life is the ultimate overriding principle. These laws are meant to ensure life, not endanger it, so they become immediately invalidated if one’s life is in danger. An observant Jew may see himself as forbidden from using a car on the Sabbath; but if there is suddenly a life-threatening emergency and he needs go to the hospital, then not only can he get into the car and drive – he must! There is no tolerance for religious martyrdom here.
It is from this very pragmatic approach to the maintenance of physical health and well-being that Judaism has earned a reputation as a worldly religion, one concerned mostly with righteous conduct in this life, rather than some far-off spiritual reward in the afterlife.
And yet, the other most classic rabbinic interpretation of this verse, cited by Rashi from the Sifra, takes us in exactly the opposite direction:
“And live by them” – in the World to Come. For if you thought it was referring to life in this world – well, a person always eventually dies! (Sifra, Acharei Mot 8:10)
וחי בהם– לעולם הבא. ואם תאמר בעולם הזה, והלא סופו מת הוא
The rabbinic voice in this midrash arrives at this metaphysical interpretation by assuming that the phrase “and live by them” means to tell us that someone who keeps the commandments will never die! Yet, it is quite clear that this is not what happens: experience tells us that just about everyone in history who has kept the commandments, has eventually died. The practice of these laws does not at all seem to grant eternal life – at least, not here in this world. The only way to maintain this reading of the verse, then, is to assume that the commandments do grant eternal life – not here, but in the World to Come.
Now these two interpretations clearly represent very different theological orientations. In the first model, the Torah’s highest concern is the preservation of life in this world. Religious observance does not trump basic human survival. In the second model, however, the whole point of observing the commandments is to attain a share in the World to Come. This earthly life is just a prelude to some eternal existence in the Great Beyond.
So which of these is the “authentic” Jewish message? Does the Torah present us with a theology of immanence or transcendence – of material realism or spiritual idealism?
One of the great masters of Torah commentary, Moses Nachmanides, manages to read both possibilities – and even some nuances in between – into the Torah’s phrasing, “A person shall do them and live by them.” He writes:
Know that a person’s life in the commandments is determined by his own orientation to them. If someone does them, not for their own sake, but only to receive a reward, then that person will simply live a long life in this world – with wealth, property and honor…
Then there are those who perform the commandments in order to merit the World to Come. They are driven by fear, and so they receive just what they have intended, which is just to be saved from the punishment of the wicked. But their good life still awaits them…
And there are those who labor in the commandments out of love, exactly as they should be performed… they will have a good life in this world, and then their merit will be completed in World to Come. ..
That is why the verses always speak of the reward for the commandments in the second person: “In order that your life is lengthened,” (Exod 20:12), or, “In order that you live” (Deut. 16:20), or, “You will lengthen your days,” (Deut. 22:7) – because the language is meant to include the all the possible “lives” – each one set in accordance with the person it fits.
ודע כי חיי האדם במצות כפי הכנתו להם כי העושה המצות שלא לשמן על מנת לקבל פרס יחיה בהן בעולם הזה ימים רבים בעושר ובנכסים וכבוד… וכן אותם אשר הם מתעסקין במצות על מנת לזכות בהן לעולם הבא שהם העובדים מיראה זוכים בכוונתם להנצל ממשפטי הרשעים ונפשם בטוב תלין … והעוסקין במצות מאהבה כדין וכראוי… יזכו בעולם הזה לחיים טובים כמנהג העולם ולחיי העולם הבא זכותם שלמה שם והעוזבים כל עניני העולם הזה ואינם משגיחים עליו כאילו אינם בעלי גוף וכל מחשבתם וכוונתם בבוראם בלבד… יחיו לעד בגופם ובנפשם…ולכך יאמרו הכתובים בשכר המצות למען יאריכון ימיך (שמות כ יב) למען תחיה (דברים טז כ) והארכת ימים (שם כב ז) כי הלשון יכלול מיני החיים כולם כפי הראוי לכל אחד
What Nachmanides has done, in this feat of interpretive prowess, is to suggest that the answer to the question of what “life”means in our verse is determined by the belief system of the reader. If she is primarily concerned with living well in the here and now, then her reward for the commandments will be in this world. If she is fearfully fixated on the afterlife, then her good life will be waiting for her there, in the World to Come. And if she truly loves these commandments, because she recognizes in them both possibilities, then she will find her life enriched, first in this world, and then even more so in the next one. The verses about life speak in the language of “you,” because You are the one who decides what that life means.
In other words, all the commentators, with all their various interpretations of the phrase, “and live by them – וחי בהם,” over the centuries – they have all been right. For they have each found in the verse the meaning of life they wanted to find, according to the kind of life they could believe in.
The language of the Torah, Nachmanides dizzyingly suggests, is meant to include all these possibilities. This verse that speaks of living in the commandments is deliberately vague because it remains to be seen what kind of life, you, dear reader, will find therein.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Courage to Admit Mistakes
Some years ago I was visited by the then American ambassador to the Court of St James, Philip Lader. He told me of a fascinating project he and his wife had initiated in 1981. They had come to realise that many of their contemporaries would find themselves in positions of influence and power in the not-too-distant future. He thought it would be useful and creative if they were to come together for a study retreat every so often to share ideas, listen to experts and form friendships, thinking through collectively the challenges they would face in the coming years. So they created what they called Renaissance Weekends. They still happen.
The most interesting thing he told me was that they discovered that the participants, all exceptionally gifted people, found one thing particularly difficult, namely, admitting that they made mistakes. The Laders understood that this was something important they had to learn. Leaders, above all, should be capable of acknowledging when and how they had erred, and how to put it right. They came up with a brilliant idea. They set aside a session at each Weekend for a talk given by a recognised star in some field, on the subject of “My biggest blooper.” Being English, not American, I had to ask for a translation. I discovered that a blooper is an embarrassing mistake. A gaffe. A faux pas. A bungle. A boo-boo. A fashla. A balagan. Something you shouldn’t have done and are ashamed to admit you did.
This, in essence, is what Yom Kippur is in Judaism. In Tabernacle and Temple times, it was the day when the holiest man in Israel, the High Priest, made atonement, first for his own sins, then for the sins of his “house,” then for the sins of all Israel. From the day the Temple was destroyed, we have had no High Priest nor the rites he performed, but we still have the day, and the ability to confess and pray for forgiveness. It is so much easier to admit your sins, failings and mistakes when other people are doing likewise. If a High Priest, or the other members of our congregation, can admit to sins, so can we.
I have argued elsewhere (in the Introduction to the Koren Yom Kippur Machzor) that the move from the first Yom Kippur to the second was one of the great transitions in Jewish spirituality. The first Yom Kippur was the culmination of Moses’ efforts to secure forgiveness for the people after the sin of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32-34). The process, which began on 17th Tammuz, ended on the 10th of Tishrei – the day that later became Yom Kippur. That was the day when Moses descended the mountain with the second set of tablets, the visible sign that God had reaffirmed his covenant with the people. The second Yom Kippur, one year later, initiated the series of rites set out in this week’s parsha (Lev. 16), conducted in the Mishkan by Aaron in his role as High Priest.
The differences between the two were immense. Moses acted as a prophet. Aaron functioned as a priest. Moses was following his heart and mind, improvising in response to God’s response to his words. Aaron was following a precisely choreographed ritual, every detail of which was set out in advance. Moses’ encounter was ad hoc, a unique, unrepeatable drama between heaven and earth. Aaron’s was the opposite. The rules he was following never changed throughout the generations, so long as the Temple stood.
Moses’ prayers on behalf of the people were full of audacity, what the Sages called chutzpah kelapei shemaya, “audacity toward heaven,” reaching a climax in the astonishing words, “Now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book You have written.” (Ex. 32:32). Aaron’s behaviour by contrast was marked by obedience, humility, and confession. There were purification rituals, sin offerings and atonements, for his own sins and those of his “house” as well as those of the people.
The move from Yom Kippur 1 to Yom Kippur 2 was a classic instance of what Max Weber called the “routinization of charisma”, that is, taking a unique moment and translating it into ritual, turning a “peak experience” into a regular part of life. Few moments in the Torah rival in intensity the dialogue between Moses and God after the Golden Calf. But the question thereafter was: how could we achieve forgiveness – we who no longer have a Moses, or prophets, or direct access to God? Great moments change history. But what changes us is the unspectacular habit of doing certain acts again and again until they reconfigure the brain and change our habits of the heart. We are shaped by the rituals we repeatedly perform.
Besides which, Moses’ intercession with God did not, in and of itself, induce a penitential mood among the people. Yes, he performed a series of dramatic acts to demonstrate to the people their guilt. But we have no evidence that they internalised it. Aaron’s acts were different. They involved confession, atonement and a search for spiritual purification. They involved a candid acknowledgment of the sins and failures of the people, and they began with the High Priest himself.
The effect of Yom Kippur – extended into the prayers of much of the rest of the year by way of tachanun (supplicatory prayers), vidui (confession), and selichot (prayers for forgiveness) – was to create a culture in which people are not ashamed or embarrassed to say, “I got it wrong, I sinned, I made mistakes.” That is what we do in the litany of wrongs we enumerate on Yom Kippur in two alphabetical lists, one beginning Ashamnu, bagadnu, the other beginning Al cheit shechatanu.
As Philip Lader discovered, the capacity to admit mistakes is anything but widespread. We rationalise. We justify. We deny. We blame others. There have been several powerful books on the subject in recent years, among them Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success (and Why Some People Never Learn from Their Mistakes); Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error, and Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me.
Politicians find it hard to admit mistakes. So do doctors: preventable medical error causes more than 400,000 deaths every year in the United States. So do bankers and economists. The financial crash of 2008 was predicted by Warren Buffett as early as 2002. It happened despite the warnings of several experts that the level of mortgage lending and the leveraging of debt was unsustainable. Tavris and Aronson tell a similar story about the police. Once they have identified a suspect, they are reluctant to admit evidence of his or her innocence. And so it goes.
The avoidance strategies are almost endless. People say, It wasn’t a mistake. Or, given the circumstances, it was the best that could have been done. Or it was a small mistake. Or it was unavoidable given what we knew at the time. Or someone else was to blame. We were given the wrong facts. We were faultily advised. So people bluff it out, or engage in denial, or see themselves as victims.
We have an almost infinite capacity for interpreting the facts to vindicate ourselves. As the Sages said in the context of the laws of purity, “No one can see his own blemishes, his own impurities.” We are our own best advocates in the court of self-esteem. Rare is the individual with the courage to say, as the High Priest did, or as King David did after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his guilt in relation to Uriah and Batsheva, chattati, “I have sinned.”
Judaism helps us admit our mistakes in three ways. First is the knowledge that God forgives. He does not ask us never to sin. He knew in advance that His gift of freedom would sometimes be misused. All he asks of us is that we acknowledge our mistakes, learn from them, confess and resolve not to do them again.
Second is Judaism’s clear separation between the sinner and the sin. We can condemn an act without losing faith in the agent.
Third is the aura Yom Kippur spreads over the rest of the year. It helps create a culture of honesty in which we are not ashamed to acknowledge the wrongs we have done. And despite the fact that, technically, Yom Kippur is focused on sins between us and God, a simple reading of the confessions in Ashamnu and Al Chet shows us that, actually, most of the sins we confess are about our dealings with other people.
What Philip Lader discovered about his high-flying contemporaries, Judaism internalised long ago. Seeing the best admit that they too make mistakes is deeply empowering for the rest of us. The first Jew to admit he made a mistake was Judah, who had wrongly accused Tamar of sexual misconduct, and then, realising he had been wrong, said, “She is more righteous than I” (Gen. 38:26).
It is surely more than mere coincidence that the name Judah comes from the same root as Vidui, “confession”. In other words, the very fact that we are called Jews – Yehudim – means that we are the people who have the courage to admit our wrongs.
Honest self-criticism is one of the unmistakable marks of spiritual greatness.
From Academy For Jewish Religion
A D’var Torah for Parashat Aharei Mot
By Rabbi Michael Rothbaum
In an instantly-classic scene from Fiddler, Tevye the dairyman comes to an agreement to marry off his daughter Tzeitl to the butcher Lazar Wolf. The two men celebrate by singing the rousing anthem L’Hayim — “To Life!” The lyrics report that:
Life has a way of confusing us,
Blessing and bruising us.
Drink, l’chaim, to life!
This modern Jewish sacred text reflects an elemental hasidishe teaching — namely, that that even when the material conditions of existence are meager, we raise up the sparks of holiness that surround us. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, we can lift a glass of shnapps “to life.”
The toast l’hayim stretches much farther back than Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics, of course, no matter how much we revere them. Some scholars trace the custom all the way back to Talmudic times, as illustrated in this text from tractate Shabbat:
Rabbi Akiva … made a banquet for his son, and over each and every cup he brought he said: Wine and life to the mouth of the Sages! Wine and life to the mouth of the Sages and to the mouth of their students! (Bavli Shabbat 67b)
As the text illustrates, the celebration of life is not only appropriate in difficult times, but in joyous times as well.
The Jewish teaching regarding the preciousness of life appears in this week’s Torah portion, Aharei Mot. “Keep My laws and My judgements,” God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites, “that humanity shall do them and live by them” (Lev. 18:5).
Numerous commentators read the injunction not just to keep God’s teachings, but to “live by them,” as representing a principle that the performance of mitzvot should not cost us our lives. “Live by them,” we learn both in tractate Yoma and tractate Sanhedrin, means “not die by them” (Yoma 85b; Sanhedrin 74a). The violation of mitzvot is, in fact, commanded in the vast majority of cases in which human life is endangered, based on this Talmudic teaching. Thus, in a case where “a person is dangerously sick on the Sabbath and a remedy must be prepared,” 18th Century Turkish Rabbi Yitzchak Magriso teaches in the Sephardi commentary, Me’am Lo’ez, “the Torah does not want us to keep the sabbath and allow the patient to die.” Rather, he continues, “on the contrary — the commitment is to violate the Sabbath so the person will survive!”
That the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, saving life, takes precedence over other mitzvot may seem obvious to those of us who know a little something about Jewish teaching. But a cursory look at the land where we live shows that it is far from obvious. Few public leaders of any party seem particularly troubled that Covid-19 deaths in the United States are approaching the one-million mark. Mass shootings, which once shocked the conscience, now barely mention a headline. Deaths of immigrants in detention sometimes don’t achieve even that — this, of course, in a country in which citizens regularly die of hunger and neglect. In such a land, it’s clear that we’ve lost our way, and that Leviticus has much to teach us.
But there is another facet to God’s insistence that we should “live by” the mitzvot, a teaching less about social justice and more about soul and spirit. Read with this spiritual lens, we see a text that teaches us to find vitality in the performance of mitzvot. This teaching is particularly salient, especially, at a time when some have become witheringly exacting in their adherence to ritual mitzvot.
Back in the early 19th century, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was already warning of the dangers of such exactitude. In an audacious reinterpretation of the Talmudic texts, the rebbe writes that the injunction to live through mitzvah and not to die by them concerns not physical life, but “those who are exacting and unnecessarily strict” in the performance of mitzvot. As a result of “their exactitude and depression, they have no vitality [hiyut] from any mitzvah.” But Rebbe Nachman’s audacity goes further — one who performs mitzvot in a spirit of such joyless and brittle compulsion “fails to meet their religious duties” (Likutei Moharan II 44:5). It is as if mitzvot performed in such a way are not mitzvot.
The solution to the bleak approach to Jewish observance rejected by Rebbe Nachman is beautifully articulated by one of his contemporaries, Chaim of Volozhin, in his master work, Nefesh HaHayim. Chaim looks at the Hebrew words in our parashah, hai bahem, and translates them not as “live by them,” but rather as “live within them.” When performing a mitzvah with intention, Chaim teaches that a person is “surrounded and clothed, that moment, in holiness.” Rather than enervating drudgery, the Nefesh HaHayim invites us to see the performance of mitzvot as a moment in which we are “surrounded then with the holiness of the mitzvah” — and, moreover, “encompassed by the atmosphere of the Garden of Eden.”
The irony of our lives now is that, while most of us are much more materially comfortable than Tevye the dairyman, we do not necessarily feel that our existence is any more purposeful or consequential. The blessing of the teaching to live by our mitzvot is that it gives us meaning and purpose, no matter how we read the text. If we see it as a mandate to protect life, our nation sets before us a landscape rich with opportunity. We can find meaning in fighting for the expansion of affordable healthcare, greater investment in public health, legal protections for workers laboring under dangerous conditions. If we read the text as does the Nefesh HaHayim, we can reject the cynicism and despair of our times by enrobing ourselves in the holiness of Yiddishkeit. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping us from pursuing both paths.
Sheldon Harnick was right of course. Life does, indeed, have a way of confusing us. And yet, what a gift to be part of a people whose wisdom acknowledges that confusion, and confronts it, offering up pathways to purpose that enrich us and, ultimately, enliven us.
From the Hebrew College
Reading, Healing & Remembering
By Frankie Sandmel
Parshat Acharei Mot, in all honesty, evokes a reaction along the lines of, “Ugh, are we still reading this? Aren’t we healed from this already? Can we skip it this year?” It opens with the fallout from the dramatic, public deaths of Aaron’s sons and closes with a list of all of the forbidden sexual practices, including the particularly dicey Leviticus 18:22, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.”
Whenever I encounter Leviticus 18:22, each spring in Acharei Mot and each fall in the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading, I make a point of returning to the 8th chapter of Sanhedrin, a section of the Talmud that guides me in encountering texts which carry legacies of violence, pain, and exclusion.
This chapter in Sanhedrin deals with another violent—dare I say abhorrent— instruction in the Torah: the stoning of the Ben Sorer u’Moreh, the stubborn and rebellious son, before he can cause harm (Deuteronomy 21:18). The Torah explains, “Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21:21)
This type of anticipatory punishment feels deeply unsettling. Who are we to pre-judge the outcome of a person’s life? And, frankly, I personally hold those deemed “stubborn and rebellious” in high regard—as someone once said, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
Fortunately, in the case of the Ben Sorer u’Moreh, the early Rabbis shared my discomfort. Over the course of a few pages—which is very long in the Talmud—the Rabbis take this injunction and render it completely toothless.
Through what I affectionately call Rabbinic gymnastics—their creative and innovative system of interpreting Torah—they limit the possibilities of who could be legally considered a Ben Sorer u’Moreh until it becomes a legal impossibility. For just one absurd example, they say that in order for the parents’ claim to be considered in court, their voices must sound identical to each other and the claim must be spoken in unison.
It’s pretty cool to see the Rabbis transform this violent commandment into something bordering on farce.
But an obvious question remains: If the Torah is from God, but the Rabbis are right in eradicating this practice, why would God include problematic texts in the Torah to begin with?
And the answer: דרוש וקבל שכר drosh v’kabel shar—expound, explain, give a drash on it, and receive reward.
Which is to say, this commandment to stone the stubborn and rebellious son only exists as an opportunity to use our God-given tools of interpretation to make it disappear.
I take this charge to heart: parts of Acharei Mot are among the verses in the Torah that are ripe for us all to explain away and be rewarded. Leviticus 18:22 is one more example of unjust systems and values waiting for the Ben Sorer u’Moreh treatment.
This charge is not so simple, though. As we continue to see “Don’t Say Gay” bills and the criminalization of gender-affirming care become law in this country, it feels naive to look at this violent verse as a merely theoretical rhetorical device.
And, again, I find my objection raised by the Rabbis with regard to the Ben Sorer u’Moreh. At the end of their discussion of it, Rabbi Yonatan speaks up and says: אני ראיתיו וישבתי על קברו ani ra’itiv v’yashavti al kivaro—I have seen him and I have sat on his grave.”
In other words, Rabbi Yonatan protests: with all due respect to your powers of interpretation, my fellow Rabbis, we have enacted this violence—I have seen it happen.
A particularly poignant detail about this that I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Benay Lappe, is that Rabbi Yonatan is a Kohen, a priest. Kohanim are forbidden from entering graveyards for anyone outside of their immediate family. Which is to say, if Rabbi Yonatan sat on his grave, the grave had to have belonged to his own son, or brother.
I often feel inclined to stop telling the story at דרוש וקבל שכר—“expound and receive your reward”—it’s more optimistic. But as we are destined to continue reading Leviticus 18 each year, and as we are still mired in the struggle to build a world where people are free to love who and how they choose, we also need to lift up Rabbi Yonatan’s voice. His voice represents the ones who witnessed the suffering these words caused and who carry the memory of those who were harmed before the Rabbis’ interpretation became Torah.
I offer Sanhedrin chapter 8 as a guidepost—here is one way to continue to engage with Torah even when it is harmful. May we all hope, pray, and work for a future where Leviticus 18 and its heteropatriarchal prohibitions are as obsolete as the instruction to stone stubborn and rebellious children.
And, as Rabbi Yonatan reminds us, may we continue to do the work on the ground to redress this harm, to honor the memories of those lost in the fight, and not let ourselves off the hook until our rhetoric and our actions are aligned.
The Maqam Project
Parshat Acharei Mot
Torah Reading for Week of April 28-May 4, 2019
“But What of Azazel?”
By Rabbi Corinne Copnick,
“Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord, and the other marked for Azazel” (Leviticus 16:7-8) .
Acharei Mot, the title of the parsha, means “after the death,” referring not to the pair of he-goats, but to “the two sons of Aaron who died when they were too close to the presence of the Lord” (JPS Translation). Only one of the goats, however, will be sacrificed. The second, marked for Azazel, is to carry all the sins of the Israelites into the wilderness. Like casting our bread crumbs into natural waters at Rosh Hashana, sending Azazel into the wilderness is also reminiscent of the banishment of Cain and of Hagar and Ishmael as well. Cain eventually found respite in Edom, where he and his descendants prospered. Hagar and Ishmael were comforted that God would make of the Israelites two great nations.
But what of Azazel, who symbolically carried all our sins away? Did he find respite on the mountain that some think was near Mount Sinai? Different rabbis of old have different explanations. Here is the one favored by medieval scholar Ibn Ezra: “According to Saadia [Gaon],” he writes, Azazel is “the name of a mountain, so called because it was precipitous” . Possibly the goat driven into the wilderness would eventually stumble on the rocky cliffs and fall to its death, but it would not be slaughtered as a sacrifice.
Other commentators explain that Azazel is a compound word (more common in Aramaic than in Hebrew). Thus “as azel” means “the goat went” . Rashi, however, translates Azazel as meaning “to the goats”; in other words, the biblical goat was released alive into the wilderness, presumably to dwell among the other wild goats. I am comforted by Rashi’s explanation. But he dismisses the el at the end of the word as a grammatical suffix.
My astrological sign is “the goat,” a designation with which I was never entirely comfortable. So I have a personal interest in Azazel. When I visited Scottsdale, Arizona for the first time, it was evident that a single, dry, brown mountain dominated the landscape. It was huge. Then, as my stay grew longer, I began to discern moving shapes blending into the rocky mountain: animals, living beings of different kinds. And the most agile among them were mountain goats. One of them stood high on a cliff, looking out beyond the mountain, protecting the flock below. To me, it signified that the biblical Azazel was cast by lot to be a survivor, a goat that could withstand the barren wilderness and create a family there. Perhaps, in overcoming the sins with which it had been burdened as a form of sacrifice, Azazel had also endured.
Mountain goats in their whiteness
clamber up the stony cliffs,
scale rocky heights,
melt age-old snowcaps
with priestly vision.
Flock protected beneath his
fortress, a monarch stands
alone atop the tajo.
 Acharei Mot, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication society, 1999) 244.
 Ibn Ezra. Quoted in Michael Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible: Leviticus (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2009), 120.
 Carasik, 120.
 Ibid., 121.
 ©Corinne Copnick, Montreal, Quebec, 1982. All rights reserved. Poem first published in the 10th Anniversary issue of “Voices Israel,” Haifa, Israel, 1982.
From My Jewish Learning
Reconciling Biblical Morality with Our Own
Assumptions in Leviticus 18 are in some cases abhorrent to contemporary sensibilities.
Leviticus 18 is one of two passages in the Torah (the other being Leviticus 20) that consists of sexual regulations meant to distinguish Israel from the surrounding nations and make it a holy people. Although the prohibitions in our passage have had a profound impact on Western sexual morality, its assumptions are remote from — and in some cases even abhorrent to contemporary sensibilities.
First of all, Leviticus evaluates sexual behaviors not in terms of the emotional and relational dimensions of sexual experience that are so central to judgments about sexual morality today, but in terms of the categories of purity and pollution. The purpose of anti-pollution laws is to impose structure on the chaos of experience by ensuring that social and symbolic boundaries are respected and that things conform to their proper class. Leviticus 18 forbids a series of discrete behaviors that supposedly cause defilement and thus disrupt the social/religious world, but it offers no positive understanding of holy sexuality.
Second, if we look at the social order that the Levitical anti-pollution laws protect, it seems to consist of extended patriarchal families in which the honor and authority of male heads of household is the primary social value. Verses 7 and 8 do not forbid the father to sexually violate his child bur rather forbid the son to violate the sexuality of his father by committing incestuous adultery with the father’s wife.
The verses instruct the less powerful party not to dishonor the powerful by treating the wife’s sexuality simply as her husband’s possession. Some of the incest prohibitions, such as the outlawing of marriage with two sisters (v, 18), work to the benefit of women, but it is not women’s concerns and interests that animate the text. The striking absence of the most prevalent incest violation, namely that between father and daughter, makes clear that it is not the purpose of Leviticus in this case to protect the weak and defenseless.
Third, the marginalization of women within the social world presupposed by Leviticus 18 is underscored by the prohibition of sex with a woman who is menstruating, in v. 19. On one level, this prohibition fits quite seamlessly into the purity-related concerns of Leviticus.
The book earlier defines many bodily emissions as defiling, placing menstrual blood in a similar category with semen and other discharges from the penis, as well as non-menstrual discharges from the vagina (Leviticus 15). On another level, however, the proscription of sex with a menstruating woman is part of a larger symbolic complex in which menstrual blood has particularly negative associations. The prophets liken adultery, idolatry, and murder to menstrual impurity (see Ezekiel 36:17, for example), while the Book of Lamentations describes conquered Jerusalem as a menstruating woman whose “impurity clings to her skirts” (1:9).
Fourth, the passage in Leviticus 18 most often cited today, namely the prohibition of male anal intercourse in v. 22, serves as a major justification for homophobia in current religious and political debates and also helps to maintain gender hierarchy. A man who penetrates another man “as one lies with a woman” is guilty of mixing or confusing kinds. He treats another man as one should treat only a woman, thereby moving a male body into the category of female. In the world of Leviticus, doing so both emasculates the particular man who is the penetrated partner and threatens the notion of penetrative intercourse as a defining aspect of gender difference.
It seems then that, despite its attempts to promote holiness, Leviticus 18, far from fostering holiness in sexual relations, reflects and reinforces many of the structures of domination that support sexual and family violence. The passage contains important insights that contemporary Jews can affirm: We need some boundaries in sexual relationships; sexual behavior is not simply a private matter; individual behavior is connected with the ethical character of our social world. Leviticus 18 seeks to implement these ideas in its own time and place. But we need to find ways to express these insights in the context of an ethic of sexual holiness appropriate for the 21st century.
We can see Leviticus 18 not as a static document that we must either accept or reject but as a part of Jewish tradition that grapples problematically with ongoing human problems. If so, we can also use it as a starting point for raising hard questions about our own sexual values. What should be included on a list of forbidden and permitted relationships today? Are there certain “bottom lines” that we would want to be part of any statement of sexual norms? How do we balance the need to safeguard those with less power in sexual relationships with the desire to layout a constructive vision of holy sexuality? How might we articulate a person-centered ethic that focuses on qualities of human connection rather than on the intrinsic nature of particular sexual behaviors? How do we ensure that our sexual values reflect fundamental ethical values such as honesty and justice that ought to guide all human interactions?
What place do we give to feelings as a dimension of holy sex? How should pleasure figure into our ethic, for example? How do we attend to the social structures that undergird and make possible holy and sustainable relationships? What social rights and obligations might we see as fundamentally connected to the ability to create satisfying relationships?
A contemporary response to Leviticus 18, in other words, requires both criticism and transformation. It requires careful examination and rejection of those presuppositions of Leviticus that produce and support sexual injustice. But it also involves imagining an alternative ethic that brings in the concerns and questions of those whose perspectives are erased or marginalized by Leviticus itself-as well as by our culture today. Such a response seeks to create the foundation for a sexuality and sensuality that is life-giving for all.
The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible.
The Sanctity Of Elemental Relationships
The juxtaposition of laws about the high priest on Yom Kippur, forbidden sexual relationships and laws about blood teach the sanctity of basic parts of life.
BY RABBI SHIMON FELIX
This week’s Torah portion, called Achrei Mot — “After the Death of” — begins by telling us that “God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near before God and died.”
The portion then goes on to describe the rather long and complicated ritual that is meant to take place in the Temple every Yom Kippur — the sacrifices, fasting, and prayers, the scapegoat, and, as a climax to the day, the offering, by the High Priest, of the incense in the Holy Of Holies, directly in front of the Holy Ark, in the intimate presence of God.
The reference to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, which we discussed a couple of portions ago, in Parshat Shemini, seems to be introduced here in order to give added weight and authority to the extreme sensitivity concerning the high priest entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur .
This, the Torah tells us, is an extremely dangerous interaction — “Speak to Aaron your brother that he should not come at any time to the Holy [of Holies]…so that he does not die. Only in this way [by carefully following the ritual of Yom Kippur] may Aaron come into the Holy [of Holies]…” Only once that ritual has been done according to all its details, on this one day of the year, may the High Priest enter the Holy of Holies, and experience the intimate, immediate presence of God.
After the Yom Kippur ritual is detailed, the portion goes on to prohibit the offering of sacrifices anywhere but in the Temple; this act is seen as one of disloyalty, and is termed an act of “whoring,” terrible infidelity to God and His Temple. After this, the Torah moves along the following path:
Do not offer sacrifices outside of the Temple.
If you sacrifice or slaughter an animal, its blood must either be offered ritually on the altar, or, if it is not a sacrifice, the blood must be covered by dirt.
In no circumstances is blood to be eaten.
The portion then concludes with a long list of prohibitions against certain sexual relations — incest, adultery, and others.portion
On Yom Kippur, in the morning, the custom is to read the first part of the portion, that which describes the ritual of the day. Interestingly, the custom on Yom Kippur is to also read, at Mincha, the afternoon prayer, the end of the portion, the part detailing forbidden sexual relations. Although the first custom makes obvious sense, what lies behind the practice of reading, on Yom Kippur, about the forbidden relationships? Moreover, how is the first part of the portion connected with the end of it?
I think it is important to note that the first and last sections are connected by more than the fact that we read them both on Yom Kippur: The opening section, detailing the Yom Kippur ritual, and, specifically the climactic moment of the high priest entering the Holy of Holies, uses words denoting coming near and entering.
First, we are reminded of how Nadav and Avihu died “b’korvatam lifnay hashem” — “when they came near before God.” We are then told how Aaron may enter the sanctuary — “Bezot yavo” — “with this he may enter.” The same word that was used regarding Nadav and Avihu’s coming near God is used over and over in regards to the sacrifices which must be brought on that day — “V’hikriv Aharon” — “and Aaron shall bring near” (i.e. offer, sacrifice).
So, too, in the section at the end of the Torah portion, detailing the forbidden relationships, we see the same key words. The section opens with the following words — “Every man should not come near (“lo tikrevu“) to their own flesh [close relatives] to reveal their nakedness.” The same root “karov,” to be near, is used to describe what happens on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies, and also to describe the relationships — the “coming near” — which the Torah forbids.
This connection between the ritual of Yom Kippur and the forbidden unions communicates to us a remarkable insight about the nature of intimate relationships. The Torah is clearly paralleling the intimacy one achieves with God in the Holy of Holies with intimate sexual relations. Just as the one must not be promiscuous, casual (“Speak to Aaron your brother that he should not come AT ANY TIME to the Holy [of Holies]…so that he doesn’t die.”), so too, our sexual relationships must not be that way.
The coming near to, the entering of, the Holy of Holies, God’s presence, described in the first section as an act which demands sanctification, ritual, and loyalty (remember the warning afterwards not to go “whoring” after other Gods by making offerings outside the Temple — outside the relationship) is paralleled by a similar view of sexuality. Our intimate relationships must also be sanctified, must be seen as something to be entered into with appropriate ritual, and to the exclusion of other unions.
It is, I think, startling to realize that the Torah, by equating these two things, is saying something radical about the ultimate importance of our intimate personal relationships. Just as our relationship with God is not to be taken lightly, and is of great, even cosmic importance — is, in fact, life-threatening in its significance — so, too, must we understand the nature of our intimate relationships.
The Torah sees human sexuality as something that closely parallels our relationship with God. Just as Eve, upon the birth of her first son, Cain, gave him his name because, as she said “Caniti ish et hashem” — “I have gotten a man, like (or with) God,” we, too, are meant to see the procreative act as somehow divine, as linking us with God. Hence the concern, on the part of the Torah, that we approach that act, and the relationship pertaining to that act, with the same care, commitment, seriousness and sense of sanctity with which we approach our intimate moments with God.
This is paralleled with the prohibitions against spilling animal blood without the attendant ritual of burying it, and against eating blood, which function as the bridge between the opening and closing sections of the parsha . Blood, the life force, the symbol of life itself, must be related to with dignity, respect, and care, just as our intimate relationship with God, and our intimate human relationships must be.
The Torah, in these three sections, is delineating for us an attitude, a world view, that relates to the most basic and powerful acts in our lives with sanctity, respect, attention, and spirituality. To relate to these elemental relationships and experiences in a casual, off-handed fashion would, in effect, define our lives themselves as casual, and of little significance.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multidenominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
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.
Rabbi Richard F Address
From Brian Yosef Schachter- Brooks
The Scapegoat: Shame and Guilt (Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5775)
The strangest and most dramatic element of the service on Yom Kippur, set out in Acharei Mot (Lev. 16:7-22), was the ritual of the two goats, one offered as a sacrifice, the other sent away into the desert “to Azazel.” They were to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from one another: they were chosen to be as similar as possible in size and appearance. They were brought before the High Priest and lots were drawn, one bearing the words “To the Lord,” the other, “To Azazel.” The one on which the lot “To the Lord” fell was offered as a sacrifice. Over the other the High Priest confessed the sins of the nation and it was then taken away into the desert hills outside Jerusalem where it plunged to its death. Tradition tells us that a red thread would be attached to its horns, half of which was removed before the animal was sent away. If the rite had been effective, the red thread would turn to white.
Much is puzzling about the ritual. First, what is the meaning of “to Azazel,” to which the second goat was sent? It appears nowhere else in Scripture. Three major theories emerged as to its meaning. According to the sages and Rashi it meant “a steep, rocky or hard place,” in other words a description of its destination. According to the Torah the goat was sent “to a desolate area” (el eretz gezerah, Lev. 16:22). According to the sages it was taken to a steep ravine where it fell to its death. That, according to the first explanation, is the meaning of Azazel.
The second, suggested cryptically by Ibn Ezra and explicitly by Nahmanides, is that Azazel was the name of a spirit or demon, one of the fallen angels referred to in Genesis 6:2, similar to the goat-spirit called Pan in Greek mythology, Faunus in Latin. This is a difficult idea, which is why Ibn Ezra alluded to it, as he did in similar cases, by way of a riddle, a puzzle, that only the wise would be able to decipher. He writes: “I will reveal to you part of the secret by hint: when you reach thirty-three you will know it.” Nahmanides reveals the secret. Thirty three verses later on, the Torah commands: “They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols [seirim] after whom they go astray” (Lev. 17:7).
Azazel, on this reading, is the name of a demon or hostile force, sometimes called Satan or Samael. The Israelites were categorically forbidden to worship such a force. Indeed the belief that there are powers at work in the universe distinct from, or even hostile to, God, is incompatible with Judaic monotheism. Nonetheless, some sages did believe that there were negative forces that were part of the heavenly retinue, like Satan, who brought accusations against humans or tempted them into sin. The goat sent into the wilderness to Azazel was a way of conciliating or propitiating such forces so that the prayers of Israel could rise to heaven without, as it were, any dissenting voices. This way of understanding the rite is similar to the saying on the part of the sages that we blow shofar in a double cycle on Rosh Hashanah “to confuse Satan.”
The third interpretation and the simplest is that Azazel is a compound noun meaning “the goat [ez] that was sent away [azal].” This led to the addition of a new word to the English language. In 1530 William Tyndale produced the first English translation of the Hebrew Bible, an act then illegal and for which he paid with his life. Seeking to translate Azazel into English, he called it “the escapegoat,” i.e. the goat that was sent away and released. In the course of time the first letter was dropped, and the word “scapegoat” was born.
The real question though is: what was the ritual actually about? It was unique. Sin and guilt offerings are familiar features of the Torah and a normal part of the service of the Temple. The service of Yom Kippur was different in one salient respect. In every other case the sin was confessed over the animal that was sacrificed. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest confessed the sins of the people over the animal that was not sacrificed, the scapegoat that was sent away, “carrying on it all their iniquities” (Lev. 16:21-22).
The simplest and most compelling answer was given by Maimonides in The Guide for the Perplexed:
There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress people with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent – as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.
Expiation demands a ritual, some dramatic representation of the removal of sin and the wiping-clean of the past. That is clear. Yet Maimonides does not explain why Yom Kippur demanded a rite not used on other days of the year when sin or guilt offerings were brought. Why was the first goat, the one of which the lot “To the Lord” fell and which was offered as a sin offering (Lev. 16:9) not sufficient?
The answer lies in the dual character of the day. The Torah states:
This shall be an eternal law for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must fast and not do any work … This is because on this day you shall have all your sins atoned [yechaper], so that you will be cleansed [le-taher]. Before God you will be cleansed of all your sins. (Lev. 16:29-30)
Two quite distinct processes were involved on Yom Kippur. First there was kapparah, atonement. This is the normal function of a sin offering. Second, there was teharah, purification, something normally done in a different context altogether, namely the removal of tumah, ritual defilement, which could arise from a number of different causes, among them contact with a dead body, skin disease, or nocturnal discharge. Atonement has to do with guilt. Purification has to do with contamination or pollution. These are usually two separate worlds. On Yom Kippur they were brought together. Why?
We owe to anthropologists like Ruth Benedict the distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures. Shame is a social phenomenon. It is what we feel when our wrongdoing is exposed to others. It may even be something we feel when we merely imagine other people knowing or seeing what we have done. Shame is the feeling of being found out, and our first instinct is to hide. That is what Adam and Eve did in the garden of Eden after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. They were ashamed of their nakedness and they hid.
Guilt is a personal phenomenon. It has nothing to do with what others might say if they knew what we have done, and everything to do with what we say to ourselves. Guilt is the voice of conscience, and it is inescapable. You may be able to avoid shame by hiding or not being found out, but you cannot avoid guilt. Guilt is self-knowledge.
There is another difference, which explains why Judaism is overwhelmingly a guilt rather than a shame culture. Shame attaches to the person. Guilt attaches to the act. It is almost impossible to remove shame once you have been publicly disgraced. It is like an indelible stain on your skin. Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth say, after her crime, “Will these hands ne’er be clean?” In shame cultures, wrongdoers tend either to go into exile, where no one knows their past, or to commit suicide. Playwrights have them die.
Guilt makes a clear distinction between the act of wrongdoing and the person of the wrongdoer. The act was wrong, but the agent remains, in principle, intact. That is why guilt can be removed, “atoned for,” by confession, remorse and restitution. “Hate not the sinner but the sin,” is the basic axiom of a guilt culture.
Normally sin and guilt offerings, as their names imply, are about guilt. They atone. But Yom Kippur deals not only with our sins as individuals. It also confronts our sins as a community bound by mutual responsibility. It deals, in other words, with the social as well as the personal dimension of wrongdoing. Yom Kippur is about shame as well as guilt. Hence there has to be purification (the removal of the stain) as well as atonement.
The psychology of shame is quite different to that of guilt. We can discharge guilt by achieving forgiveness – and forgiveness can only be granted by the object of our wrongdoing, which is why Yom Kippur only atones for sins against God. Even God cannot – logically cannot – forgive sins committed against our fellow humans until they themselves have forgiven us.
Shame cannot be removed by forgiveness. The victim of our crime may have forgiven us, but we still feel defiled by the knowledge that our name has been disgraced, our reputation harmed, our standing damaged. We still feel the stigma, the dishonour, the degradation. That is why an immensely powerful and dramatic ceremony had to take place during which people could feel and symbolically see their sins carried away to the desert, to no-man’s-land. A similar ceremony took place when a leper was cleansed. The priest took two birds, killed one, and released the other to fly away across the open fields (Lev. 14:4-7). Again the act was one of cleansing, not atoning, and had to do with shame, not guilt.
Judaism is a religion of hope, and its great rituals of repentance and atonement are part of that hope. We are not condemned to live endlessly with the mistakes and errors of our past. That is the great difference between a guilt culture and a shame culture. But Judaism also acknowledges the existence of shame. Hence the elaborate ritual of the scapegoat that seemed to carry away the tumah, the defilement that is the mark of shame. It could only be done on Yom Kippur because that was the one day of the year in which everyone shared at least vicariously in the process of confession, repentance, atonement and purification. When a whole society confesses its guilt, individuals can be redeemed from shame.
 Rosh Hashanah 16b.
 The Guide for the Perplexed, III: 46.
 There were exceptions. A leper – or more precisely someone suffering from the skin disease known in the torah as tsara’at – had to bring a guilt offering [asham] in addition to undergoing rites of purification (Lev. 14: 12-20).
 Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, London, Secker & Warburg, 1947.
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.
From Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie
From Rabbi David Ingber
Becoming Good, Deep, and Alive
Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim
Torah Reading for Week of April 14-20, 2013
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.
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.
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.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(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.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
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.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
NAKED (ACHAREI MOT) 2008
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.
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. http://www.scribd.com/doc/50933414/Azazel.
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.
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
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
Elisheva bat Aminadav
is howling for all the mothers
and the fathers who are mothers
who love no crown more than the crown
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
will your loss be quieted.
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?
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.
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
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