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Parasha No. 29
Ahare Mot: “after the death”

Vayikra (Leviticus) 16,1 - 18,30


First level

Plan

- Mitzvot and themes
- Function
- The Jewish method of study
- Death of Aharon’s son
- First approach
- Second approach
- Role of Aharon
- Positive interpretations
- Connecting the different approaches
- The lesson that ensues
- Limitless love
- A teaching for everyone
- Confronting failure with silence
- Conclusion
- Rules of caution
- Humility

Second level

The second level: “the death of love” is treated in my poems and derives from the Shla’s view of death as an integral part of the process of growth.

- Listen to the parasha (Ort link)

- Teamim Ashkenazim

- Listen to the parasha (Alliance link)

- teamim Sepaharadim

- Listen to the haftara (Ort link)

- How to understand these teachings

- Halakha: Jewish laws on death


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First level

Mitzvot and Themes

Mitzvot nos. 185 to 212 are found in parasha Ahare Mot.

- They relate to the law forbidding the High Priest, the Cohen Gadol, from entering the Holy of Holies whenever he wishes.

The parasha is named “after the death” because it describes the fate of the children of Aharon who went towards Hashem and perished.

Rashi demonstrates that these two factors (death and entry into a specific place) are connected (ma talmud lomar..ke derekh shemei ploni, ze zerzo yoter min ha rishon, lekhakh beemar ahare mot shenebene aharon, so that you will not die in the way x died). We shall be studying the connection between the two.

- The subsequent mitzvot describe the sacrifices which must be made on Yom Kippur, the place for the sacrifices of animals, the laws governing their blood, the prohibition against marriage between family members in order to avoid incest, the prohibition against male homosexuality, and prohibition against sexual relations between women and animals.

Function

It is important to note that this parasha connects all the aspects of the role of the High Priest, which is to repair the harm caused by Adam, with the commandments of holiness that apply to every member of the Jewish people.

The Jewish method of study

This consists in asking questions about anomalies in the text, for this is how important meanings are discovered and passed on. Thus the question here is: why are the mitzvot in this parasha introduced with the story of the death of Aharon’s sons?

The death of Aharon’s sons

There are three different commentaries on this episode.

Rashi, in his commentary on parahsa Tsav (7,1) and parasha Shemini (10,1) presented various interpretations drawn from Middrash Rabba and Torat Cohanim, which are as follows:

- some believe the text offers moral lessons on human conduct, which act as warnings;
- others criticize Aharon;
- others praise the actions of Aharon’s sons.

It is important to connect these different approaches in order to understand the full meaning of the text. This is what Rashi does when he presents various commentaries and states “davar aher” – he is urging us to seek to discover the overall meaning of a text that has various meanings.

We shall see that this approach will enable us to draw an important teaching, which will be based on the commentaries of the Shla Hakadosh.

First approach

The first approach of commentators is to view the death of Nadab and Abihu (the sons of Aharon) as the consequence of a sin on their part.

They died for various reasons:

- because they each took a censer and put fire and incense in them in an unauthorized manner;
- because they offered a “strange fire” (esh zara) unto Hashem;
- because they did this in a place (the Sanctuary) and time which were inappropriate and without having being commanded to do so (cf Vayikra ch. 10, in parasha Shemini);
- because they taught a rule of halakha (holy law) in a place where they were not allowed to do so (Tractate Eruvin 63);
- because they appropriated the role of their father;
- only Moses was allowed to enter the Sanctuary whenever he wished. Aharon could enter at certain times, but not his sons who could not take the place of their elders;
- because they entered the Sanctuary under the influence of wine or liquor;
- the motive for their action was based on the feminine midda (quality) of justice and not on the desire to dedicate the sacrifice to Hashem’s mercifulness.

Second approach

The second approach recognizes the importance of these sins and that they constitute a solemn warning, but maintains that they do not explain the part played by Aharon himself, nor the positive terms with which the Torah describes his sons.

Analysis of Aharon’s role

The two sons who perish in this tragic episode are not called by their names “Nadab and Abihu” but are called the “sons of Aharon.” This tells us that we should seek meaning in the filial relationship. This is probably an allusion (remez) to a father’s responsibility in guiding his children, and is similar to the teachings drawn from the episode of the golden calf. Moshe states explicitly in Devarim 9, 20: “uveAharon hiteanaf Hashem meod le Hashemiso veetpallel gam baad Aharon, and Hashem was very angry with Aharon to have destroyed him; and I prayed for Aharon also the same time.”

Rashi tells us that Moshe’s prayer succeeded only in saving two of the four sons. Aharon’s responsibility is based on the second commandment in Shemot 20, 5: poked avon avot al banim, I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children..” Tractate Yoma 87 a elaborates on this.

Positive interpretations

We shall now try to understand the above, with the help of the Shla and his examination of the different commentaries through the traditional method of analyzing similar words which used in different contexts.

The Shla stresses that the positive term “sacrifice” is used in the Torah in relation to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu.

In a similar vein, the end of parasha Tsav (8,6) states that Moshe “approached” or “sacrificed” Aharon and his sons (vayakrev Moshe et Aharon vet banav) ; the sons therefore act as a sacrifice, in the same way as Yitzhak was offered as a sacrifice by Abraham. These men thus ceased to be strangers (zarim) to Hashem. Tradition says that they contributed to the “reparation” (tikkun) of Adam and humanity. Indeed, this connection is suggested by the use of the same word at the beginning of Vayikra (1,2) to describe Adam: “adam ki yakriv mikem, when any man-adam of you bringeth an offering..”

One should note too that the text describes the episode of the two sons in the same terms as when it describes the consummation by fire of the sacrificed animals: it is a fire which devours (10,2 vatetse esh milifne hashem va tokhal otam), sacrifice (16,1: ahare mot shnei bene Aharon bekorvatam lifne hashem vayamutu, after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near before Hashem and died).

It is clear from the text that Aharon and his sons were both the ones making the sacrifice and the victims.

We can conclude that Aharon’s sons died in a relationship of “sacrifice.” The use of the words “when they drew near (sacrificed), bekorvatam lifnei Hashem” stresses the fact that this was not only an act of sacrifice but that it was a sacrifice of intense proximity to Hashem or of too great proximity to Him.

Other facts reinforce this view:

- this episode introduces the section on the Yom Kippur rite, the solemn day when the people acknowledge their sins, sacrifice themselves and place their sins on an animal which is sacrificed (seir le azazel, the scapegoat).
- Moshe himself speaks of Nadab and Abihu with praise when he recounts their death to Aharon;
- the Zohar (III, 58b) notes that they are not described as “having perished from among the assembly” as was said of Korah in Bemidbar 16, 33 (veyovedu mi tokh hakahal), deducing from this that their bodies disappeared but not their souls (neshama).
- Nadab and Abihu are also praised in words taken from the Psalms: “the death of those who love is precious in the eyes of Hashem.” The Zohar also describes their story in a play on words from the Song of Songs 1, 3: alamot ahevukha, al-amot, the young girls love you, to the death.


Connecting the two approaches

It is important to take into account both these approaches to the text (it is a warning and a praise)
in order to discover the message which the Torah wishes to convey before it teaches us the rites we need to carry out in order to become kedoshim, holy.

The Torah raises an important question: if our connection to Hashem is one of life, and the sons of Aharon carried out a sacrifice and drew near to Hashem as required, did they perish because they sinned or because of their over-zealousness?

On the surface ( nigla), they perished because they taught a halakha in the Sanctuary at an inappropriate time (Tractate Eruvin 63) or because they did not respect all the laws regarding holiness. However, the Zohar shows us that the true meaning is not that they transgressed, but that they committed an ierror of judgment, for there are places and times when an action must adhere strictly to the law, and there are those when Rahamim (mercy) governs. There are times when Hashem is near (Psalm 145,18) and times when He is far (Yermiyahu, Jeremiah 31, 2) Nadab and Abihu, unlike their father, did not fully know the laws and secrets governing places and time.

This is also an allusion (III 59b) to the fact that they were two men, for only male and female together can discover the presence of Hashem, just like the keruvim (cherubs), through whom the divine presence was revealed, were male and female.

Aharon knew that he had to wait for the movement of the keruvim and submit himself to them. Only through the union of male and female at its highest level could one approach this holy place. The commentators stress the fact that Nadab and Abihu had one masculine soul (neshama) in two bodies and therefore could not approach Hashem. They will only find this complementary duality when they unite in the neshama of Pinhas and his wife.

The teaching which ensues from this

Thus, in some aspects, Aharon’s sons did exactly what Hashem demanded but, in other aspects, they were unable to carry out their task. This tragic episode teaches us the importance of the laws concerning divine holiness.

We can now more fully understand the connection between the different teachings:

1. Nadab and Abihu are presented as positive examples because of the intensity of their desire and love for Hashem, who is the kaddosh (the holy one), to whom we draw near when we carry out His commandments and by being like Him, since we are made in His image. At this level, the two sons are exemplary models because Hashem demands our hearts, our love, that we should love Him with all our being, with all our hearts and with all our possessions.

2. But we must not allow ourselves to be governed by desire, however pure, for through Moshe, Hashem taught us how to draw near to Him without risking our bodies being burnt or destroyed (for the soul remains whole) and Moshe passed on this art to Aharon and Yehoshua.

This episode is therefore well placed to teach us the practices that will make us kedoshim (holy) for He is kaddosh (holy), and that it is important to avoid
- executing religious duties in a mechanical manner;
- and juvenile over-zealousness which can cause harm.

3. This is an important lesson for it teaches us how difficult it is to combine holiness and humankind without falling into destructive modes such as:
- fleeing from holiness, as with those who believe (justly) that the Torah presents very different values to our worldly ones and who wish to dismiss them in every possible way (but history and the Creator always catch up with them);
- over-zealousness and believing one can do what one likes with regard to holiness.

4. This episode teaches us to what degree the spiritual/religious domain is necessary but also dangerous, for it requires simultaneously total enthusiasm and absolute caution -- two contradictory qualities, which we nevertheless have to maintain, just as two polarities, alef and tav, are encompassed in the word at (you), even though we can never really attain full comprehension of another person. Hashem, who is alef, mem and tav (emet) helps us in this.

Another positive interpretation - limitless love

The human and loving qualities of Nadab and Abihu are not put into question by their death. On the contrary, they taught us what is limitless love and they are praised for it. They lacked experience and should have consulted the wisdom of their father.

At the deepest level (nistar, hidden), they perished because they entered the Sanctuary under the influence of wine, which does not refer to drink but to knowledge of the deeper aspects of the Torah, for wine (yain) is linked to what is secret (sod), the two words having the same gematria (numerical value) of 70. It is of these noble deaths amidst the divine secret that the Psalmist writes: “yakar beine hashem hamavta lahassidav, precious in the sight of Hashem is the death of his saints.”

This notion is not just a poetic image. Our Sages write of “death through a divine kiss” (mitate neshika), as does Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak in Berakhot 8a, when he comments on Proverbs 8, 35 (“whoso findeth me findeth life - motsi matsa - and shall obtain favor - ratson - from Hashem, but he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death”). He explains this through Psalm 68 verse 21, which speaks of the “issues of death” (totsaot, which has the same root as the word ‘find’), of which there are 903, which is the numerical value of this word. Just as there are many ways of living, there are 903 ways of dying and the kindest is the kiss: death through a kiss is as sweet as the delicate picking of a thread of hair from milk (neshika domia kemish hal binita me helba). Zohar I 168a elaborates on this theme and says when this happens “a soul draws close to its essence” (hi devijuta denafsha beikara).

The Talmud and the middrashim consider that the fates of Nadab and Abihu are similar to others who approached secret domains and did not leave unscathed:

- Adam who failed in the Garden of Eden and sinned,

- Noah who was not ready to face the implications of kedusha and cautiously did not expose himself to them, thus causing harm to his generation,

- Avram who knew how go up out of Egypt towards the south (vayaal…hanegva, Bereshit 13, 1) in order to discover wisdom, as is written in Tractate Baba Batra, page 25.

- Ribbi Akiva who entered the pardes and came out unharmed, contrary to his three companions. Among them, Ben Azzai met the same fate as the sons of Aharon and perished from so great a happiness. For this is not the usual type of death which stems from our human condition and results from sin. As Psalm 49, 13 says: “man being in honor abideth not; he is like the beasts that perish.”

- as for Moshe, he did not enter the pardes; he was already in it. This is why it is written that he “received” the Torah and “transmitted” it to Yehoshua (see the beginning of the first mishna in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers). He received (kibel) the Torah because he was “in it” and could approach Hashem when he wanted, face to face - panim el panim.

- Yehoshua also lived in the tent of kedusha but did not receive Hashem’s light directly: it was reflected on him through Moshe, like the moon receives the reflection of the sun. He who is in light, like Moshe, does not always know it and it does not seem to him to be a secret. After him, the Torah was handed down to the elders, and then to the people. But Yehoshua knew how to balance the desire for love with reality and this is why he was able to lead the people and the people remained faithful to the Torah till his death.

How does all this relate to Nadab and Abihu, Aharon’s sons, and why is it important to pass these teachings onto us, for we are ordinary mortals?

Nadab and Abihu did not perish because they transgressed but because their neshamot (souls) drew too close to Hashem and there was a split between the body and the soul, for their bodies could not tolerate such proximity (this is where the educative role of parents comes in). Their neshamot remained in the heavens, says the Shla, and this is what caused their death.

As is written: “bikrovai akadesh, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me” (Vayikra 10, 3) and this is what is praised in Psalm 116, 15.

Such proximity belongs to the world to come.

A teaching for everyone

Because of these supreme heights of love and union, the issue is not whether Aharon’s sons were right or wrong. No one can claim to be so great as to be able to judge them. We simply need to draw from this episode a teaching which is meaningful to us. The episode does not teach us about the great, inevitable death; it teaches us about death that happens at every little moment. This has three forms:

- refusing to love Hashem and turning towards contemporary golden calves;
- refusing to love Hashem and practising religion without love and commitment;
- refusing to love Hashem with all one’s heart and not carrying out the daily mitzvot with love.


Silence in the face of failure

Issues such as these require great knowledge, extensive training and, when there are errors or excesses (for one cannot learn without committing errors), silence.

This was Aharon’s reaction when he learnt from Moshe of his sons’ deaths.

This is also the instruction God asks of Job’s talkative friends at the time of Job’s trial with the Creator.

This is also the rule of Rabbi Shimon ben Rabban Gamliel as set out in chapter one of Pirkei Avot: “I was brought up all my life amongst the Sages and I have found naught so essentially good as silence, not the study of the Torah is of fundamental import but the practice and whosoever is profuse of words occasions sin.” Like Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon was one of the 10 martyrs.

There are two ways of totally sanctifying the body in daily life:

- the first is that of kiddush Hashem in martyrdom (be keddoshim, Vayikra 11,45), the second is the way of Nabab and Abihu, Hanoch (Bereshit 5,24) and Elisha (II Kings 2, 11);
- the second is death due to the soul being too close to Hashem, when the soul is as burnt and the body can no longer be its envelope in this world. The body remains intact but it is abandoned by the soul. It would be nice to die because we are too pure and holy.

The Shla notes that this could be a moment of love, which explains Rabbi Akiva’s joy (Berakhot 61) at the moment of death, despite his great suffering.


Conclusion

The important teachings of this parasha must be treated with caution.

- the main teaching is love; it is important to remember the intense love Hashem has for his people and how much we are asked to love Him in return, as is written at the beginning of the Shema. Who does not give all in love, gives nothing.

- this must go as far as accepting kiddush Hashem. This does not mean we should fantasize but we must be ready to accept trials and suffering in silence and consider them a blessing, as Aharon teaches us (10, 3-10) in every tiny aspect of daily life, when we must accept the will of the Creator, who is the only one who knows His ways.

- it is important to study with avot (fathers) who pass on their knowledge and experience, and with great masters who are scholars of the Torah and of everything that relates to human existence.

- these teachings should inspire us to examine where we ourselves stand and to take the necessary measures to ensure the optimal development of love and of wisdom. As Moshe explains, we have a duty to love and a duty to live, to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and to teach the Torah to the children of Israel. We are asked to do many contradictory things and this requires deep self-examination in order to understand ourselves and in order to learn how to discern, love, act and be silent. Blessed are those who find friends, companions, books, or teachers who are capable of accompanying them on these noble paths.

Let us heed the rules of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, to which he added these words, which ensure happiness in this world and enable it to survive: “By three things is the world sustained: by judgment, by truth and by peace..execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (cf. Zachariah 8,16).

But we must not renounce the infinite greatness of the Torah as in the words which are pronounced before the kaddish: “Hashem is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake; he will magnify the Torah and make it honoroubly” (Isaiah 42, 21).

Humility

If Hashem judged that it was good to give us so much light, even though we are weak, fragile and flawed, it is not up to us to decide that we are unworthy of it and this is not our way.

Hashem gave us His Torah and Moshe as our teacher; therefore,

- we must accept it,
- we must dare to recite the holy kaddish and say with the angels Barukh kevod-Hashem memekomo, blessed is the glory of Hashem in His place,
- Hashem is the only one who can tie all these contradictory issues together and this is why we must acknowledge this even in the moment of death, big or small, and we must bless Him, saying that only He knows the truth which we cannot understand. Barukh dayan haemet.

“Allah akbar, God is great” say the Arabs. Our tradition says that He is up high: adir bamarom Hashem.

Out of His goodness, he wished to make us in His image and in His likeness, to make us know His Name and His Torah, His people and His land, and the secrets of life, death, trials and suffering. He knows why. This is not the fate of a few individuals; it is the fate of all of us, so that we will live fuller lives and in truth. We, in return, must be grateful, unjudgmental, loving, trusting, and patient. We must feel intensely, be prudent and know ourselves.

The concepts in this commentary are complex and cannot be understood or absorbed in just one session. They need to be studied over and over again, meditated and reflected on. They are not simple teachings, nor for the student, or the teacher and many years of study were necessary in order to find the precise sources for this commentary.

Study the vocabulary in this commentary.

Preceding parasha Next parasha

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Dedication

Rav Professor
Yehoshua Rahamim Dufour
(Dipur, in hebrew)

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