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Parashot Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

Rav David Silverberg


Many writers have observed the transition that the Book of Vayikra undergoes in the middle of Parashat Acharei Mot, a shift from an intensely Temple-based focus to broader issues of religious conduct relevant throughout the land, not merely in the sacred grounds of the Temple.  This week we shall identify and analyze this transition and its implications.


The First Half of Vayikra: Interaction with the Shekhina


     As we discussed in our shiur on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, Shemot concluded with the descent of Shekhina (God's "Presence") onto the Tabernacle, while the first half of Vayikra dealt with the nation's interaction with the Divine through the medium of sacrifice.  Specifically, we read of with what sacrifices and under what circumstances an individual may or must approach the Shekhina in the Temple.  From there we moved to "tum'a" and "tahara," ritual purity and impurity, the conditions that govern whether or not one may enter the Almighty's abode.  (Although this first half of the sefer also includes "ma'akhalot assurot," the Torah's dietary laws in chapter 11, here, too, the discussion follows a clearly evident "tum'a/tahara" theme.  Simply compare this chapter with the corresponding dietary laws in Devarim - chapter 14.  Note that whereas Devarim includes only the laws concerning eating, Vayikra concentrates as well on the purity and impurity emerging from the status of certain "impure" creatures.)


     The first two topics covered in Parashat Acharei Mot continue developing this theme.  The parasha opens with the "avodat Yom ha-Kippurim," the service conducted by the high priest on Yom Kippur (chapter 16).  The manner in which the Torah introduces this passage is particularly meaningful for our understanding of this chapter:


The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.  The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aharon that he is not to come at any time into the Shrine behind the curtain… Only thus shall Aharon enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin-offering…


     Rather than presenting a clear, straightforward obligation to perform annually the service outlined in this chapter, the Torah introduces these rituals as the condition for Aharon's entry into the innermost chamber of the Tabernacle.  In fact, only towards the very end of this chapter (16:29 - five verses before the chapter's close) does God clarify that this procedure must be conducted each year on the tenth of Tishrei.  This prompted the Gaon of Vilna (as cited by his student, Rabbi Avraham Danzig, at the end of his Chokhmat Adam) to claim that Aharon, the first high priest, was granted permission to conduct this ritual and thereby enter the inner chamber whenever he wished, not merely on Yom Kippur.  The restriction imposed on the kohen's entry, that it occur only on Yom Kippur, took effect only after Aharon's death.  In any event, what concerns us is the focus of this presentation: the means by which one enters the holiest chamber in the Sanctuary and can most closely approach God.


     This focus is further reinforced by the seemingly unnecessary mention of the death of Aharon's sons in this context.  As Rashi comments, God invokes this tragedy here as a deterrent to unauthorized entry into the Sanctuary.  They perished as a result of their intrusion, as it were (Vayikra 10:1-2), having approached God unlawfully.  Their death thus effectively represents the complexity and delicate nature of man's encounter with the Shekhina.  When done properly, "Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering … all the people saw, praised, and fell on their faces" (9:24).  When the strict regulations failed to be obeyed, "Fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them [Aharon's sons]" (10:2).  It is noteworthy that here the verse attributes their death to their having "drawn too close to the Presence of the Lord."  Whereas the initial account tells only of their unauthorized incense offering and mentions nothing of an unlawful entry (carefully read 10:1), our parasha points to their approach as the root of their sin.  This discrepancy sparked an interesting controversy in the midrash "Torat Kohanim" as to the precise nature of Aharon's sons' violation.  Clearly, however, the focus here is on the encounter, which demands strict compliance and obedience.  God introduces His guidelines for the most intense encounter between man and Shekhina - Aharon's entry into the holiest chamber - by recalling the tragic death of his sons, which most sharply reflects the complexity involved.


     The second topic covered in our parasha likewise addresses this theme, only from a different angle.  Chapter 17 deals primarily with the prohibition known as "shechutei chutz," ritual sacrifice outside the Tabernacle.  (According to the Ramban, it introduces as well the prohibition of "besar ta'ava," forbidding the consumption of meat in the wilderness outside the framework of the Tabernacle's sacrificial system.)  Given the complexity of the encounter with the Almighty in His Tabernacle, one may wish to seek alternate modes of worship, dictating his own regulations, standards and guidelines.  Doing so, however, severely infringes on the honor of the Sanctuary as the exclusive home of the Shekhina.  There is no alternative to the intricate process of meeting the Almighty in the single, centralized Tabernacle.  The encounter with the Almighty as detailed throughout Vayikra cannot be substituted with innovative modes of worship.


     In truth, this theme of exclusivity is already sensed in chapter 16, in the description of the Yom Kippur service.  In the course of this ritual, two goats are offered for expiation on behalf of the nation.  The first, the "se'ir le-Hashem" (goat for God), is slaughtered and sacrificed as a standard sin-offering with which we are familiar from earlier in Vayikra.  The second, however, deviates drastically from the normal procedures in the Temple: the "se'ir la-azazel," generally translated as "scapegoat," is sent out into the wilderness and, as the Sages explain, cast off a cliff, symbolizing the eradication of the nation's sins.  Rav Yoel Bin-Nun (among others, presumably) suggested that these two goats atone for two different categories of sins.  The sin-offering earns expiation for those transgressions involving desecration of the Temple.  The Torah describes the purpose of this offering as follows:


He shall purge the Shrine of the impurities and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins, and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their impurity. (16:16)


The final clause, which speaks of the Tabernacle's presence among the nation despite their "impurity," has been understood by the Sages as a reference to God's willingness to reside among His nation despite their unworthiness (Yoma 57b-58a).  For this to occur, however, the kohen gadol must "cleanse" the Temple from the people's sins - through the Yom Kippur sin-offering.


     The second goat, by contrast, achieves general atonement for sins committed outside the Temple.


     That the Torah here refers to the world beyond the Temple walls as "azazel" is very telling.  From the perspective of the first half of Vayikra, a given location may be categorized as either "le-Hashem" - Godly, if it is within the sacred grounds of the Temple - or "la-azazel" - a barren wasteland, if it is anywhere else.  This extreme classification likely reflects the more moderate concept of the Temple's centrality with respect to Benei Yisrael's worship of God.  The Torah affords absolute hegemony to the Temple as God's sole place of residence and the focal point of Benei Yisrael's religworship.  (To this very day, of course, Jews around the world face the direction of the Temple Mount during prayer.)


The Second Half of Vayikra: The Shekhina's Effect on the Entire Land


     This analysis of the first two chapters of our parasha (15 and 16) sharpens the contrast between the two halves of Vayikra, which pivot around the next two chapters, 17 and 18.  Until now, the sefer described the nation's interaction with the Shekhina, concluding with the exclusivity of the Temple as the setting for this encounter; Vayikra now affords the entire Land of Israel that sacred quality heretofore restricted to the Temple.  From this point on, Vayikra presents laws - moral, ethical, agricultural and ritual - that have little, if anything, to do with the Temple.  In a VBM shiur several years ago, Rav Avraham Walfish argued that chapter 18, which lists forbidden sexual relationships, forms the transition from the Temple-oriented laws to the generally-relevant ones.  The concluding verses of this chapter employ the term "tum'a" in reference to sexual violations (see 18:24, 25, 28, 30).  The Torah broadens this term from the narrow and technical halakhic meaning, employed in the first half of the sefer, to a much more general connotation of objectionable conduct.  Sanctity now extends beyond the Temple, thus demanding a level of "purity" corresponding to the standard required in the Mishkan.


     Furthermore, the effects of sexual misconduct, as described in the closing verses of Parashat Acharei Mot, strongly parallel the governing principle of the Temple:


For all those abhorrent things were done by the people who were in the land before you, and the land became defiled.  So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you. (18:27-28)


Just as an individual may not tread on the sacred ground in a state of tum'a, as this desecrates its sanctity, so does immorality desecrate the sanctity of the Land of Israel.


     The transition from chapter 17 to chapter 18 thus reflects two sides of the same coin.  On the one hand, the Temple is exclusive, the only spot on earth where one can experience a (nearly) direct encounter with the Almighty; the intricate procedures applicable to the Temple constitute the only means by which one may approach God.  At the same time, the broader ideals represented by the Temple, those of sanctity, purity and spirituality, must dictate the nature of the nation's existence throughout the Land of Israel and in every area of life.


"I am the Lord"


     One particular phrase in the second half of Vayikra that grabs our attention is the ongoing repetition - albeit in slightly different variations - of the chorus, "I am the Lord."  In fact, these very words introduce this second half, at the outset of chapter 18: "The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I am the Lord your God."  In this and the next chapter alone, this clause - in one form or another - repeats itself 21 times: 18:2,4,5,6,21,30; 19:3,4,10,12,14,16,18,25,28, 30,31,32,34,36,37.  A brief survey of the subsequent chapters reveals that "Ani Hashem" earns a prominent place throughout Vayikr's entire second half.  To the best of my knowledge, this expression appears not once throughout the first half (chapters 1-17).  Wherein lies the specific significance of this clause, and how does it relate to the second half of Vayikra?


     The Midrash (Mekhilta, Parashat Yitro) relates "Ani Hashem" to the Revelation at Sinai.  Just as a king must first establish his authority before imposing legislation, so did the Almighty issue commands to Benei Yisrael only after they accepted His kingship.  "I am the Lord your God who took you from the land of Egypt" (the first of the Ten Commandments), the Midrash explains, reminded Benei Yisrael that previously, in Egypt, they accepted God as king.  This acceptance must be clarified before God can proceed with His commandments.  Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, cited there in the Midrash, adds that this same procedure occurs here, at the outset of Vayikra 18.  "I am the Lord your God" reminds the people of their recognition of divine authority, which they confirmed at the Revelation.  In the words of Rabbi Shimon, the Almighty then responds, "You have accepted My kingship - now accept my laws: 'You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt… ' [the commandments of chapter 18]." 


     This Midrash brings to mind the famous association drawn by Ramban (beginning of Parashat Teruma) between the Mishkan and the Revelation.  According to Ramban, the Tabernacle serves to perpetuate the experience of Sinai - God's appearance to the people and the presentation of His laws through Moshe.  Rabbi Shimon interprets the beginning of Vayikra 18  "Ani Hashem," as corresponding to the beginning of Shemot 20 - the introduction of the Ten Commandments.  If so, then the first 17 chapters of Vayikra presumably correlate to Shemot 19 - the process of God's revelation at Mount Sinai.  The disproportionate amounts of text allocated to each process of revelation should not at all surprise us.  In Shemot, all that God demanded of the people was three days of basic preparation and the delineation of a boundary line around the mountain.  God's revelation in the Mishkan, as we have discussed, was far more complex.  For God to permanently reside among Israel, even "in the midst of their impurity," they must establish and maintain the proper infrastructure of sanctity to earn His Presence.


     Once this process has been completed and the regulations outlined, the next phase, the presentation of God's commandments, can begin.  Now that God's Presence resides among the people, He instructs them as to how they can and must ensure that He remains with them.  Thus, the three-step process of revelation, "Ani Hashem," and legislation, occurs both with the receiving of the Torah and the establishment of God's residence in the Mishkan.


     In the latter instance, however, the message of "Ani Hashem" must be repeated throughout the final stage, as well.  Whereas the brief revelation at the mountain featured but a single reminder of divine authority, Vayikra includes "Ani Hashem" time and time again throughout its presentation of laws in the second half of the book.  Just as the Tabernacle perpetuates revelation by hosting God's Presence, so must the mitzvot transmitted to Moshe from the Mishkan perpetuate the primary message of Sinai: "Ani Hashem," our unwavering acceptance of, and submission to, God's unlimited authority.


Shabbat Shalom

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