“Thus Shall He Come Into the Holy Place”
As compared to other parashot of the Torah, Parashot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim contain a great concentration of mitzvot. Furthermore, many of the mitzvot featured in these parashot are part of the core and basis of the Torah and its instruction for our lives.
While this is true of both parashot, there is a very clear difference between Parashat Acharei Mot and Parashat Kedoshim. We will focus here on the elements unique to Parashat Acharei Mot.
In terms of logical sequence, the eight days of consecration of the Mishkan described in Parashat Shemini should be followed by Parashat Kedoshim. However, the natural sequence is broken by the unexpected and shocking deaths of Nadav and Avihu. This crisis brings in its wake the units that deal with the prohibitions on kohanim having long hair or becoming inebriated (Vayikra 10:6-11), as well as the opening unit of Parashat Acharei Mot, introduced by God’s command to Moshe:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they came near before the Lord and died, and the Lord said to Moshe: “Speak to Aharon, your brother, that he should not come at all times into the holy place within the veil before the covering, which is upon the ark, in order that he not die, for I appear in the cloud upon the ark cover.” (Vayikra 16:1-2)
Moshe addresses Aharon after the death of his two sons, and he commands Aharon as to the proper manner in which to enter the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim. He may not enter at any time that he chooses, and he may not enter empty-handed; there is a particular time and a specific way in which this singular individual can enter the Holy of Holies.
How does Aharon feel upon hearing these instructions? We must assume that he is thinking about his sons, who had not had the benefit of this guidance. However, in order to arrive at a better understanding of what Aharon might have thought and felt, we must go back a few chapters to the beginning of Parashat Shemini.
Awe of God’s Greatness
After Moshe commands Aharon concerning the order of the service to be performed on the eighth day, he repeats once again:
And Moshe said to Aharon: “Approach the altar and offer your sin offering and your burnt offering, and make atonement for yourself and for the people, and offer the people’s sacrifice, and make atonement for them, as the Lord has commanded.” (Vayikra 9:7)
What is the meaning of this repetition? Ramban explains Moshe’s intention and the emotions that might have been aroused in Aharon:
In Torat Kohanim (Shemini, Milu’im 8), our Sages note this and offer a parable, comparing the situation to one of a mortal king who married a woman, and she was timid in his presence. Her sister came to her and said, “My sister, why did you enter into this [marriage]? Was it not that you might serve the king? Take courage and come and serve the king!”
Likewise Moshe said to Aharon, “My brother, why were you chosen to be the Kohen Gadol? Was it not so that you would serve God? Take courage and come and perform your service.” (Ramban, Vayikra 9:7-8)
Ramban cites a midrash that describes Aharon’s feelings and comparing his situation to that of a bride who is newly married to the king. She is shy and timid in his presence, wondering to herself whether she is worthy of and suited to her new station.
Aharon is going to take on a great and important position. He knows that Moshe has already performed the service of the Kohen Gadol on a temporary basis – but he is not Moshe. He is Aharon, and he does not feel worthy of his station. Moshe steps in and tells him, “God has chosen you specifically for the purpose of carrying out the service that you are so nervous about.”
Aharon feels a natural reticence, a kind of awe, which causes him to hold himself back from stepping up to his new position and all its grandeur. Moshe does not censure Aharon for feeling as he does; he accepts his ambivalence, but tells him that he must fulfill his task all the same, for it was for this purpose that he was created.
Fear of Punishment
Ramban brings another description of Aharon’s feelings with a view to explaining the need for Moshe to urge him on to offer his sacrifices:
But some say that Aharon perceived the altar in the form of an ox, and he was afraid of it. Moshe came to him and said, “Aharon, my brother, do not be afraid; take courage and approach it. For this reason he said, ‘Draw near to the altar….’”
Aharon approaches the horns of the altar and is immediately reminded of the horns of the golden calf. Regardless of what exactly his motivation and his part in that story were, from his point of view, the entire episode sits heavily on his conscience and casts its shadow over his actions. Aharon knows that God has forgiven him and has chosen him to serve as Kohen Gadol. However, this knowledge does not relieve him of the thoughts that accompany him and continue to trouble him.
According to this explanation as well, Moshe comes and urges him to carry out his role, and Aharon accedes.
Aharon’s Fears are Realized
As we know, the awe-inspiring inauguration has a tragic conclusion:
And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And a fire emerged from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. (Vayikra 10:1-2)
Nadav and Avihu do enter – and the result is catastrophic. It is easy to imagine the thoughts flashing through Aharon’s mind: “That’s just what I said! We should not have entered the holy place! We are not worthy of it!”
The verses attribute the death of Aharon’s sons to the fact that they offered a “strange fire, which He [God] had not commanded them.” However, we cannot ignore the immense emotional burden that Aharon bears at this moment. He was hesitant from the outset, full of doubt. The death of his two precious sons seems like a confirmation of his fears. Indeed, the holy place is dangerous. It is best to keep away from it.
The Fraught Background
It is with this understanding in mind that we must read the verses at the beginning of our parasha. When Moshe instructs Aharon as to how to enter the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim, his message has to get past not only the death of Aharon’s two sons, but also that original fear and natural hesitancy on Aharon’s part – his awe of God. We may well imagine that Moshe is uncomfortable about addressing Aharon, with full awareness of the fate of Aharon’s sons, his own nephews.
Aharon, for his part, has to overcome exceptionally powerful inner resistance. He, Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, will soon be entering the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim. Within just a few weeks of that terrible moment, while the experience is still fresh in his consciousness, he will have to enter the same room in which he saw his two sons lying lifeless.
The Sin of Impulsiveness
Moshe comes and “arms” Aharon with instructions for entering the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim. As mentioned above, these instructions include different dimensions: the human dimension (the individual who is permitted to enter), the time (when he may enter), and the manner in which he is to do so. What is the meaning of all these details?
It seems that these laws come in response to the sin of Nadav and Avihu. Various different explanations are offered for what their actual sin was. The verse speaks of a “strange fire”, while different commentators suggest additional sins – such as the possibility that they were inebriated, or had grown their hair long, or taught Halakha in the presence of Moshe, their teacher.
The different interpretations offered for the sin reflect diverse elements. However, what is common to all of them is a certain impulsiveness. One way or another, they paint a picture of servants of God who, in a state of ecstasy and inspiration, enter the Holy of Holies, without any thought for the holiness of the place or any details or restrictions.
Through acting in this way, they close some of the gap between service of God and idolatry. Idolatrous service is characterized by urges, impulses, and desires – and, as it turns out, so is the service of Nadav and Avihu.
This is not the first time that we encounter this characteristic of Nadav and Avihu. Shortly after the giving of the Torah, we read:
And upon the nobles of Bnei Yisrael He did not lay His hand, and they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (Shemot 24:11).
“Nobles” – this refers to Nadav and Avihu and the elders. “He did not lay His hand” – We deduce that they deserved to have His [God’s] hand laid upon them. “And they beheld God” – they gazed upon Him in their vulgar state, in the midst of eating and drinking. Thus it is written in Midrash Tanchuma.
While Aharon has to be persuaded by Moshe to “take courage,” Nadav and Avihu are at the other end of the spectrum. They are full of courage, too confident in themselves. They feel comfortable eating and drinking in God’s Presence, in their vulgar state of mind and body. The contrast with Aharon, who hesitates and trembles at the mere contemplation of the role that awaits him, could not be more glaring.
Rules, Purity, and Life
This, then, is Moshe’s solution: “Thus shall Aharon come into the holy place…” (Vayikra 16:3). There is a very well-structured system of laws that allow for entry into the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim. Following these laws ensures safety and blessing; violating them brings disaster.
Further on, we find another word that repeats itself several times:
And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seen times, and purify it, and sanctify it from the uncleanness of Bnei Yisrael… For on that day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you may be purified of all your sins before the Lord. (Vayikra 16:19, 30)
What does the concept of purity have to do with our parasha? The connection is very clear if we understand the concept of purity. Purity signifies life as it should be lived, in all its normative regularity and within its proper boundaries. Death, on the other hand – meaning, the cessation of life – is the root of all impurity. The Torah emphasizes purity in this parasha because the proper attitude towards the Holy of Holies, and towards God, as we learn it from our parasha, is one that flows from purity – from life that is truly, fully, and spiritually lived.
Translated by Kaeren Fish