Enter the Kodesh, If You Can

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






Enter the Kodesh, If You Can


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





Our parashot begin the presentation of the laws of Yom Ha-Kippurim by alluding to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu:


"Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon's two sons, when they came close before Hashem and died. And Hashem said to Moshe: Speak to Aharon, your brother, that he should not come at any time to the Kodesh that is inside the parochet [partition], before the covering which is upon the Aron [ark], so that he will not die, for I shall appear upon the covering in a cloud. [But] thus shall Aharon come to the Kodesh: with a bull for a sin offering, and a ram as a burnt offering…" (Vayikra 16:1-3)


The opening immediately raises the question: what purpose does this reference serve in the present context?  According to the Ramban, these words are a chronological marker.  He claims that Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon regarding the Yom Kippur service immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu (this goes against his general approach that yeish mukdam u’muchar ba-Torah - the Torah is written in chronological order).  However, the Torah decided for literary purposes to discuss Yom Kippur here, preferring to follow the episode of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu with the laws of tahara and tum'a (purity and impurity – who could and could not enter into the Mikdash).  In his words:


"…[Moshe] first wrote the commandments that Israel was commanded, in order that 'they not die because of their impurity, when they defile My Sanctuary in their midst' (15:31), and afterwards he wrote the commandment regarding the individual [kohanim]."


However, the purpose of reminding the reader of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu remains unclear.  If this were solely a chronological reference, as the Ramban claims, then only the words “After the death of Aharon’s two sons” are needed.  However, the Torah mentioned the reason they died.  Clearly, the verse transmits more than chronological information.  Additionally, there is already a cautionary passage addressed directly to Aharon, in Chapter 10 after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  As discussed in our Parashat Shemini shiur, it was apparently located there because of its connection to their transgression – a prohibition for Kohanim to indulge in intoxicating beverages while serving.  As well, unlike Chapter 10, where the prohibition is addressed directly to Aharon, here, the Torah addresses Moshe, and instructs him to inform Aharon.  As such, it is more likely that the two passages were not given simultaneously. 


According to both Rashi and the Ibn Ezra, the juxtaposition meant that Hashem was stating to Moshe that this tragedy was to become a motivational reminder while instructing Aharon about entering the Kodesh Kedoshim.  Moshe must emphasize to Aharon that violating the proscriptions would potentially result in his death, as was the case with his sons.  This approach, however, is difficult; both in the sense that Aharon would have needed this reminder of his sons’ demise, and that Hashem would choose to begin the presentation of the laws of the Yom Kippur with the indelicate threat to the Kohen Gadol.  As such, we must find a different rationale for the reference.




After prohibiting the entrance to the inner sanctum at any time, the Torah writes, “for I shall appear upon the covering in a cloud (v. 2)”.  There is a major difference of opinion as to the translation of this latter clause.  Many classical commentators interpret it to mean that a cloud of Hashem’s glory resided upon the kaporet (the ark covering) in the inner sanctum and Hashem’s presence is manifest in it. The word “eira'eh” is understood as “I appear,” using the future tense for the ongoing present. Aharon is not to enter at just any time because the Divine Presence is visible there. Perhaps this cloud appears in a more concentrated form than the cloud that hovers above the Mishkan that Benei Yisrael could see daily.  This is the prevalent approach among the medieval commentators:


Rashi: For I always appear there in my pillar of cloud and since the revelation of My Divine presence is there he should be careful not to come there frequently.

Rashbam: I always appear upon the kaporet through a pillar of cloud, as stated, “and I will speak with you from above the kaporet between the cherubim” (Shemot 25:22), so that if the Kohen peers [at it] he will die. Therefore, Hashem commanded that when the kohen enters on Yom Kippur he should perform the incense service to darken the chamber (v. 13).

Ibn Ezra citing others: Because I dwell in the cloud upon the kaporet, similar to [Shlomo’s declaration], “Hashem has chosen to dwell in the thick cloud” (1 Kings 8:12).


However, the Ibn Ezra’s personal view, like the rabbinic opinion in the Talmud,  understood the cloud of  this phrase to refer to the incense cloud Aharon was instructed to raise when entering the Holy of Holies (anticipating verse 13), and not to the Cloud of Glory that always rested on the Mishkan.  This interpretation understands verse 2 as prescribing a necessary procedure to be performed before the Divine presence becomes manifest to Aharon. The passage thus describes not just “why” he should not enter at any time, but “how” he should enter when he does.


Each viewpoint has its advantages.  For some, the “key” clause – “KI” (because or for) I shall appear upon the covering in a cloud – provides the reason for the preceding statement in the verse restricting Aharon’s entry; it explains why he must be careful that he not die. By stating, “because I appear in the cloud,” Hashem is identifying His presence as the cause for restricted entry, not merely announcing that He chooses to appear when the incense-cloud is raised.  In addition, it seems that the purpose of the cloud in verse two is to shield Hashem, so to speak, while the incense cloud of verse 13 is to protect the Kohen Gadol when coming into Hashem’s presence.


However, it is not self-evident that an explicit reason for the regulation is required. It is well understood from the Torah’s descriptions of the Mishkan, its furnishings and its function that Hashem’s presence is represented to be focused in the inner sanctum, above the kaporet, where He “meets” Moshe to speak to him (Shemot 25:22; 30:6; Bemidbar 7:89). Surely one who approaches that area must take great care not to misstep, especially here following the Nadav and Avihu reference in the introductory verse.  Explaining the proper procedures by which to approach the most holy area is enough.  As well, the word used to describe Hashem’s presence should have been “eshkon” (“I dwell’), consistent with other passages.  “Am seen” or “appear” has its own connotation, and is not used elsewhere to mean “dwell.”  This problem is anticipated by the Seforno. He explains that as the area above the kaporet is the earthly source from which prophecy emanates, “I appear above the kaporet” refers to Hashem appearing to the prophets when they receive prophecy, not His being there in a state of able to “be seen.”


One final difficulty with the “cloud of glory” interpretation is that in the other descriptions of Hashem’s cloud, it does not mention the cloud as being “in” the sanctuary. The end of Shemot carefully differentiates between the cloud that covered the Tent of Meeting and His glory that filled the Mishkan (Shemot 40:34). The next verse asserts that Moshe was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud resided upon it and, again, that Hashem’s glory filled the Mishkan. On the day of dedication, it speaks about His glory (Vayikra 9:6, 23).  The cloud and His glory do not appear to be synonymous. The cloud in its other manifestations – primarily hovering above the Mishkan – was visible to the people on a regular basis, indeed; it was specifically intended for being viewed. It is thus clear that those that saw it did not die. On the sanctuary dedication day the people even witnessed Hashem’s glory in the sanctuary and nothing happened to them (Vayikra 9:23-24).


However, if we interpret the cloud in verse 2 as referring to the incense-cloud prepared by the Kohen Gadol, then we must deal with the following difficulty.  The next verse, verse 3, begins with “With the following shall Aharon come forth to the Holy.” This is the introduction to the items and procedures needed for the preparatory rites. Since the verse 2 cloud reference appears beforehand, it is apparently not part of that list of preparations, and thus does not refer to the incense-cloud. However, we can answer that while the incense-cloud is a preparation, it appears before the official inventory of required items because it is more than just another condition. The incense-cloud highlights the purpose of the entire service – bringing the manifestation of Hashem’s Presence.




We can develop a greater understanding of this section by appreciating the two sections of Sefer VaYikra that have preceded our parasha.  For the first ten chapters, Sefer VaYikra discussed the sacrifices, and a person's ability to offer them before Hashem. Following the discussion of the sacrifices, the Torah describes the seven days of inauguration, the aim of which was to reach day eight – "For on this day Hashem will appear to you" (9:4). The focus of the beginning of the book until Hashem’s revelation on day eight describes only one aspect of religious experience – the possibility of coming close to Hashem.


Suddenly, at the climatic moment, with fire emerging from Hashem and consuming whatever is upon the altar before the people’s eyes, something disrupts and spoils the moment.  Under no command, Aharon's sons enter the Kodesh and are immediately consumed. Instantly, everything changed.  A dramatic reminder that not everyone is able to serve at all times is imprinted on the nation.  Divine revelation is not to be taken for granted.


With this background, the parashot relating to the various types of ritual impurity, tahara and tum'a, emphasize the other aspect of religious experience.  Despite the closeness, an infinite abyss separating human reality and Divine reality remains. Man can not ignore that he will have moments of impurity – from the time of birth, as well as his death; with his eating and his marital relations. Without the laws that allow the people to purify themselves, mortal man cannot approach Hashem. "You shall separate Benei Yisrael from their impurity, that they shall not die in their impurity, when they defile My dwelling that is among them" (Vayikra 15:31).


Here we come to the parasha describing the Yom Kippur service, in which the Torah warns Aharon not to come to the Kodesh at any time, except within a cloud of incense as part of the Yom Kippur service. The incense cloud reminds us that the altar on which it was offered, the golden altar, did not appear in the list of items that Benei Yisrael were commanded to build for the Mishkan in Parashat Teruma.  The purpose of building the Mishkan and its vessels as bringing about Hashem’s revelation to Benei Yisrael. Only after the command to build the Mishkan and its vessels do we find the command concerning the golden altar, as though to declare, "It is Hashem's glory to hide a matter" (Mishlei 25:2). It is only by means of the screen of smoke created by the burning incense that Hashem appears above the covering of the Ark.  This is the approach of the Seforno at the end of Parashat Tetzave (Shemot 30:1):


"This altar is not mentioned together with the rest of the vessels, in Parashat Teruma for its intention was not to allow Hashem to dwell among us, as was the idea behind the rest of the vessels, as Hashem says – 'And I shall dwell in their midst; in accordance with all that I show you, the form of the Mishkan and the form of all its vessels…' Nor was its intention to bring down a vision of Hashem's glory into the house – as was the intention of the sacrifices – as He says, 'I shall meet there with Benei Yisrael,' and as Moshe testifies, when he says: 'This is the matter that Hashem commanded you to do, that the glory of Hashem may appear before you.' [Rather,] the point of this altar was to give honor to the blessed Hashem after He came to accept with favor the service of His people in the sacrifices offered morning and evening, to 'welcome' Him, as it were, with an offering of incense, in the spirit of 'Give honor to Hashem's name; bring an offering and come before Him'."


Thus, Sefer Vayikra reflects the two fundamental, polar aspects of the religious experience. On one hand, man’s soul thirsts for the Divine Presence.  On the other hand, man’s intellect reminds him daily that "no man shall see Me and live." Only after absorbing the message of the laws of purity and impurity, and having internalized the mistake of Nadav and Avihu, recognizing the two aspects of religious experience and how to reconcile them, is it possible to return to entering the Kodesh.  "By this shall Aharon come to the Kodesh…." – by recognizing, through the cloud of incense, this dichotomy, can the Torah inform us that Hashem will appear.