Acharei Mot 1
Rabbi Baht Weiss
Acahrei Mot literally means, “after the death.” The parsha begins with God speaking to Moses “acharei mot shnei bnai Aharon” after the death of Aaron’s two children, who were named Nadav and Abihu, who died in the previous Torah portion. Our text tells us that they died ״בקרבתם לפני ה״ when they drew too close to God. In Leviticus 10, Nadav and Abihu made an offering to God without being instructed to do so nor properly trained, but taking it upon themselves as the High Priest, Aaron’s sons to claim that responsibility. The text is lacking in detail as to why the punishment for the offering was so severe which leads to much rabbinic speculation about why they suffered such a drastic fate. They literally got burned (and killed) for their actions.
The fire that Nadav and Abihu offered is called אש זרה “alien fire.” What makes the fire alien or strange is unclear but it suggests that it didn’t come from God.
The cautionary tale of Nadav and Abihu in Leviticus 10 points out an incorrect way לקרוב l’krov, to approach God and in turn this week’s pasha, Acharei Mot details a correct way to connect and come close to God:
Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will at any time into the Shrine 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. Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.— He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban. They are sacral vestments; he shall bathe his body in water and then put them on.— And from the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron is to offer his own bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household. Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before יהוה at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for יהוה and the other marked for Azazel. (Leviticus 16:2-8)
Our text tells that Aaron may not draw close “at will” as did his sons but rather that there is a time and a place and a proper way in which to conduct oneself. Judaism establishes rituals to establish a sense of order in our personal and communal lives. It helps us to manage life’s chaos and uncertainty. It provides needed boundaries for our lives so we can develop a sense of right and wrong and give us guidance on the path to take through life. Aaron is asked two take two goats who will become the community’s “scapegoats” to transfer the sins of the community onto and make expiation for the sins of the collective community.
A more modern understanding of this need to let go of ‘sins’ could be a way to release the trauma and collective pain of the community—to help them clean their slate and let go of the pain of the past. By washing himself in water, Aaron not only physically cleans himself but spiritually purifies himself. One goat is offered as a sacrifice—the way the people drew close to God before the rabbis developed prayer as a vehicle for connection with God. Interesting, the other goat is sent out into the wilderness, to “Azazel.”
What does this term Azazel mean? The Women’s Torah Commentary explains Azazel is the name of the wilderness beyond the boundaries of settled life; most likely it originated as the name of a demon. Azazel in this case is best imagined as the antithesis of the Tabernacle/Sanctuary, a place of disorder devoid of the relevant priestly distinctions. “By carrying Israel’s impurities into such a wilderness, the scapegoat effectively conveys the chaotic aspects of human life back to its place of origin.”1
This ritual becomes the basis for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where we attempt to rid ourself of our regrets, our mistakes, and our transgressions—we hope to leave it in the past year and start the new year afresh. In verse 16:30 we are told “For on that day, God will make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before God.” Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk would divide the verse differently. “On that day. God will make atonement.”–God is willing to forgive you, but it is “for you to cleanse yourselves.” The atonement is not automatic, it requires great effort and exertion.
The rituals of Jewish life create structure and boundaries in a world of overwhelming choices and chaos. It gives us parameters to keep us safe, protected and cared for—rules to follow, agreed upon social codes of conduct and also, it provides us a way to move forward when our boundaries are broken or being threatened.
Each of us must define the boundaries that are comfortable for our lives and be sensitive to maintaining appropriate boundaries that demonstrate our respect of others and help all members of our community feel safe and protected. Before we rush forward in an effort to stay show leadership or bring others close, we must make sure we stay within our bounds—in our workspaces, in our families and with our neighbors. Our actions must not be impulsive—they must be done with thought, with intentionality and within the boundaries of the law.