temple emanu-el
top border
Torah Commentary
Acharei Mot (April 12, 2014)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

WHY DOES THIS WEEK’S Torah portion begin by reminding us that it follows “after the death of Aaron’s sons,” and why does it end with a warning to avoid being seduced into the abhorrent behavior of the neighboring Egyptians and native Canaanites?

The overarching theme of the three chapters we read this week is the protocol for maintaining the purity of the Sanctuary. Absent this, the required sacrificial rituals cannot be performed. These chapters detail the practices of atonement, a requirement for maintaining the purity of the Israelites. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that these chapters constitute the Torah reading for Yom Kippur.

The elaborate purification rituals here seem anachronistic to our modern sensibilities, but we must admit that the underlying concept is appealing. Imagine if, through a multilayered process of purification and sacrifice, sins actually could be removed and literally sent far away. But, in order for this to occur, the steps must be followed scrupulously. No deviation or digression will be tolerated.

But why do we begin by recalling the sad fate of Nadav and Avihu? Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (his wisdom also is included in the Pesach seder) has offered the following parable:

It may be compared to the case of the physician who visited a sick person and advised: “Do not eat cold things nor sleep in a damp place.” This advice may or may not have been followed. However, another physician came to the sick bed and said to him: “Do not eat cold things nor sleep in a damp place so that thou mayest not die as Mr. So-and-So died.” Certainly the second physician offered a more powerful rationale to conform to the admonitions than the first.

Rashi explains that the first two verses are like the advice of the second doctor. God speaks to Moses after the death of Aaron’s sons, caused by their failure to abide by the rules. We are never explicitly told what their transgression was, and generations of commentators have speculated on this. Clearly, they seem to have committed a grave sin. Some Rabbis argue that it was entering the Sanctuary at a time when not permitted, while others submit that they entered the sacred space in drunken stupors. We already have witnessed that God has no tolerance for the disregard of the instructions. We’ve seen the consequences for “breaking the rules” (think Adam and Eve in B’reshit and the Golden Calf in Exodus).

The extensive menu of prohibited sexual relations in the middle of this reading expresses God’s revulsion with the dominant pagan erotic practices and a stern warning against such practices. Perhaps the argument for observing these prohibitions is strengthened by the reminder of the tragic fate of Aaron’s sons…his heirs apparent…the next generation of High Priests. The reading concludes with an admonition against emulating the degenerate behavior of the cultures they would soon encounter.

The Sages of the Talmud emphasized that Jews must obey civil law but maintain separate religious practices. Prayer, repentance and charity — the recurring theme of Yom Kippur — have come to replace those elaborate sacrificial rites that only can be performed in the Temple. Today, these serve as important paths to an expression of Jewish identity and connectedness to the Jewish community.

Join the conversation and post your thoughts »

Back to Torah Study
photo of temple
One East 65th St., New York, New York 10065. Phone  212-744-1400
One East 65th Street, New York, NY 10065    (212) 744-1400 horizontal rule Member Log In | Calendar | Site Map | Contact Us | Text Size [+] [-]