Today's parsha, Acharey Mot, which means after death, refers to the death of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu as described in Parsha Shemini, six chapters earlier (chapter X) and which we read four weeks ago. In that parasha, the Torah states that "Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonoy alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them. . ." After this single introductory sentence today's parasha immediately moves on to the ritual for purification of the sanctuary, which was performed once a year on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
So the question is why was the introductory clause tying this parsha to the death of Aaron's sons necessary? The second verse seems to provide a hint. It says, "The Lord said to Moses, 'Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine (the Holy of Holies) behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die, for I appear in the cloud over the cover.' " It appears that Hashem's warning was connected to the first verse to remind Aaron that just as his sons paid the ultimate penalty for violating the rules of approaching God, the ritual described in this parasha, which also involves the use of incense, must be meticulously followed so that Aaron does not suffer the fate of his sons. Try to imagine how Aaron felt when he had to light the incense and enter the darkness of the Holy of Holies. No doubt his mind must have been drawn to the fate of his sons and fear welled up in him less he make a mistake performing this elaborate ritual.
On Yom Kippur, when we face the question of who shall live and who shall die, it may be worthy of us to contemplate this warning and to recognize that we too need to pay attention to the details of Jewish ritual. The careful, rigorous execution of ritual is one way for us to demonstrate that we choose life, a rich and meaningful life tied to Adonoy rather than an unmarked, haphazard path leading to death.
As I reflected on how Aaron prepared for entering the sanctuary, it made me think about how do we approach the ark today? Does that sense of awe reside in us? Is there a sense of revealing, of revelation as the ark doors are opened and the parochet, the curtain, is pulled back, and the Torahs revealed? To me it's one of the high points of the service. We rise, the ark doors are opened, the curtain symbolizing the curtain that veils God's presence from us is pulled back. It reminds us of Aaron pulling back the curtain separating the Holy of Holies and entering the darkened chamber, where the cloud of God hovered over the ark. I hope that we can be fully present at that moment and it can intensify the presence of God in our lives and open the channel for our tefilot, our prayers. Having a sense of this openness is probably the reason why our most personal prayers, like the Bei Anah Rachetz, were introduced into the liturgy at this point in the service.
The Torah (Chapter 16:17) also states "And there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when the Kohen Gadol goes into the Holy of Holies". Since we like to find meaning in every verse of the Torah, what can we learn from this instruction? One interpretation is that when we perform the most holy of acts, we do it not because someone else is watching us - we do it for its own sake. When it comes to serving God and our fellow human beings, we must act as if we were in the Holy of Holies alone and do what is right, even though there is no one else around. In the Pirke Avot, Ethics of our Fathers (4:2) there is a statement "Mitzvah goreret mitzvah", "The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah". It is our desire to be holy, to act in the image of God that leads us to maasim tovim, - not the desire for recognition and having others witness our acts. It is the acts we do selflessly that are the most meritorious.
There is another interpretation of this verse (16:17) based on the teachings of Franz Rosenzweig. He ties it to the pure white linen tunic that the Kohen HaGadol wore when he entered the Holy of Holies. The tradition is for Jews to wear white on Yom Kippur as a sign of purity and to reflect the white tunic worn by the Kohen HaGadol. Traditionally, the white garment is a kittel, a burial shroud. It is on that day, the day of our death, when we are truly alone and facing our maker. Rosenzweig notes that on that day, "God will not ask the deceased about others who were around him and what they had done to help or corrupt him. Each person will (go alone into that meeting without anyone else around and) be judged solely on their own deeds and thoughts". Sobering thoughts from one verse.
I found myself particularly drawn to the description of the use of incense, which as I mentioned is what led to the death of Nadav and Avihu. Incense played a major role in the ritual of the mishkan and in the temple and in the history of the Israelites. For example, after the rebellion of Korach described in Bamidbar, Hashem wanted to destroy the congregation of Israel and a plague broke out killing thousands. Only when Aaron was commanded by Moses to run among the Israelites with his incense was the plague stopped (Numbers 17:12). The use of incense has survived until this day in the Catholic church and is widely used in Eastern religions. Yet it is interesting that outside of the besamim used during the Havdalah service, incense has disappeared from modern Judaism. I suppose you could say that the Jewish incense of today are the smells of chicken soup and a good New York deli.
So what was this incense? Following good Jewish scholarly practice, I did a search on the web. You can imagine my surprise when Google popped up a reference to the Underground Church of the Most High Marijuana. They noticed that one of the many ingredients in the incense used for anointing the priests was called in Hebrew "kiney bosem" (Ex. 30:23), which has the root letters, kuf, nun, bet, samech. What does that spell? "Cannabis". So if you didn't know it before, it was the kiney bosem that played a very influential role in the lives of our ancestors. Maybe now we have a better understanding of last week's haptorah, Ezekiel's vision about the dry bones.
Incense was introduced in Exodus (30:9-10) and is described as "rayach nichoach laAdonoy" "a pleasing odor unto Adonoy". What acts do we do today that are pleasing unto God? Do we even think in those terms? We say we want spiritual experiences, to draw closer to God. Yet maybe as Shalom Spencer discussed in his drash about Nadav and Avihu, we need to be wary and question whether intimacy is the correct concept. Even Aaron was required to create a cloud of incense in front of him as a veil to obscure the glory of God's presence in the Holy of Holies and so spare his life. In lieu of the use of incense and sacrifices, Rabbinical Judaism redirected us towards ritual and study leading to acts of loving kindness, gemilut chasadim, as the way to please Adonoy.
The parasha then moves on to describe the ritual of the two he-goats, one selected by lot for a sin offering and the other sent away for Azazel into the wilderness. This parasha is the same Torah portion that we read on Yom Kippur and I find it fascinating to try and understand this ancient ritual. What impact did it have on the thoughts and practices of our ancestors to help bring them closer to God? What was meant "for Azazel"? If the goat sent to Azazel was considered a scapegoat, the term created by William Tyndale,| and all of Israel's impurities and sins were transferred to it and then sent to the wilderness, then what was the purpose of the goat that was sacrificed as a sin-offering? Why was there a need for two goats? Can you imagine how they would have felt if it found its way back, reappear in the camp and thus recontaminate the people with their sins? In a way, isn't this what happens to us year after year? How many of us drive sin totally away and avoid repeating the same behavior the following year? Possibly that concern is what later led to the practice of actually pushing the goat over a cliff.
Could Azazel be the name of a demon god? That was the opinion of Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra. Jacob Milgrom in his extensive commentary on Leviticus argues against this. He notes that the goat was not a sacrifice, it wasn't slaughtered. And also an animal laden with impurities would not be acceptable as an offering. He concludes that although the name Azazel may have had demonic origins, it had evolved over time to just a name designating the place to which impurities and sins were banished.
Maimonides in "The Guide of the Perplexed" (III, 46) focuses on the phrase that the goat was "sent to a land that is cut off", i.e., one that was separated from habitation. He states that "No one has any doubt that sins may not be transported from the back of one individual to that of another. But all these actions are parables. (By sending the goat to Azazel) we create the parable that we have freed ourselves from all our previous actions, cast them behind our backs, and removed them to an extreme distance." In other words, this process freed the Israelites from their past acts and they became purified, the major theme of Yom Kippur.
As I was reflecting on the goat sent to Azazel it made me wonder about the scapegoats of today. Who or what do we banish to the wilderness today to remove our sins? Politicians come to mind as popular scapegoats. Is the blame we pass on to our leaders a way of trying to drive away the guilt we have of sitting back and letting the other person do it? Or don't we even feel that guilt? What are we doing to provide proper leadership and conditions to improve our society, to educate our young and to get out the vote so that the leaders who reflect our values are elected? Sitting back and letting someone else do it is not only a national concern, but also one facing many institutions including Netivot Shalom. Possibly by reflecting on this, we can retake ownership and responsibility for what occurs in our society. May remembrance of the goat of Azazel move us towards increased participation and committed involvement. Next Yom Kippur as we hear this story being retold, may we know that we are doing our share for tikun olam, repairing the world, and creating a world of justice and peace.
I know you would be disappointed if in my role as one of the Building Campaign Chairs, I didn't find something about our new building in the parasha, so here it is. In Talmud Yoma (37a, 67b) the rabbis determined that the two goats must be identical in size, appearance and value. So what does this have to do with a building you ask? Rabbi Hillel Silverman (in his book From Week to Week) reflected on the meaning of this and wrote, "It is unrealistic to expect that anyone will expend for his fellow-man (i.e. his shul) more than he will devote to his own pleasure and enjoyment. We should give just as much to the one as to the other". I couldn't pass it up.
As Aaron concluded his confession in the Holy of Holies he backed away from the ark and out through the curtain and offered a prayer of thanksgiving. As I conclude this drash, I hope that the ritual we studied may teach us like Aaron to not turn our back on God. Let us feel the presence of Hashkinah through the practice of ritual in the deep yearning way of our ancestors. What a challenge it is for us with all our modern distractions and loud, high tech special effects entertainment to be able to hear the still small voice of God. The clouds of terrorism and war and violence obscure our vision and we get lost in the darkness of despair. By recalling the level of devotion and kavanah of our ancestors as they performed these ancient rites, may we be able to find our way through the darkness and so enrich our lives. When we smell the besamim of the Havdalah service, may we not only think of having the joy and peace of Shabbat linger with us throughout the week, but may we also think about how we can act in a way that is pleasing to God. In fact that's not a bad thought to have every time we have chicken soup or a corned beef sandwich. Although HaShem's presence will be clouded and veiled may that not becloud our struggle to "draw closer to God", to become an "Am Kadosh", a Holy Nation - a nation of priests.