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Torah Sparks

Parashat Aharei Mot / Shabbat Hagadol
April 12, 2014 – 12 Nisan 5774

Annual (Leviticus 16:1-18:30): Etz Hayim p. 679; Hertz p. 480
Triennial (Leviticus 16:1-17:7): Etz Hayim p. 679; Hertz p. 480
Haftarah (Malakhi 3:4-24, 23): Etz Hayim p. 1296; Hertz p. 1005

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

After the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron is disallowed from entering the Holy of Holies at will. God instructs Moses to guide his brother and remaining nephews in a ritual for the Day of Atonement. Included in the ritual are two goats; one (the scapegoat) of which is designated for “Azazel” which is to carry the burdens of the peoples’ sins. Yom Kippur is defined as a day of self-denial to make expiation for all Israelite sins.

General guidelines for sacrificing are detailed, including the need to present slaughtered animals to the Tabernacle and to avoid consuming blood.

In an effort to avoid Egyptian or Canaanite laws, the people are instructed to steer clear from improper sexual relations, including incest and bestiality, lest the Promised Land become defiled.

Theme #1: Aftermath

The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will 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. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

Our Torah text returns to the recent tragedy in Aaron’s family, attempting to bring some amount of closure to the incident.

My grandfather wrote a letter to my father when my father was about to be married, and he noted a traditional comment on [the merger of death and holiness]: that after people die we make them holy, speaking of them as if they were saints. “But,” my grandfather told my father, “you have always shown me respect while I am still alive.” And so one of the greatest lessons of these portions [Aharei Mot and Kedoshim] is the result of a merger of titles that are three chapters apart and that were inserted centuries after the Torah was completed. Thus wisdom can emerge in a variety of ways if the reader is wise and sensitive. — Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

When Moses heard that he was to tell Aaron that “he should not come in at all occasions to the Sanctuary,” Moses was deeply troubled. “Perhaps my brother has been rejected by God’s presence. After all, the word ‘occasion’ could mean once a day … once a year … once in seventy years … or even once in eternity!” Said the Holy One to Moses, “I did not intend it the way you are taking it — not once a year, not once in seventy years, but on any occasion that he desires he is welcome — as long as he comes in following these required preparations.” — Vayikra Rabba 21:7

The special atonement offering presupposes a disrupted relationship with the deity. God is angry with human beings — whether justifiably or not is not the question. … In short, rites of mourning and penance were enjoined in antiquity during general emergencies. Perhaps punishment by the deity could be averted or brought to an end. — Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus: A Commentary

Questions for Discussion:

Friedman’s reflection on the letter his grandfather wrote for his father reminds us of the tendency to show more appreciation to people after they have died than when they are alive - or to lionize people when they die younger than expected. How can we avoid this? Is it possible that we sometimes need to look at a life in the past tense in order to fully understand the impact it has made upon our lives? Is this fair to the living?

The section from Vayikra Rabba imagines that Moses fears that Aaron would no longer be able to have a close relationship with God in the wake of the death of Nadav and Avihu. Although there are highs and lows in the relationship between Moses and Aaron, we can easily imagine Moses sticking up for his big brother, especially after seeing Aaron suffering after personal tragedy. Is that a typical relationship between siblings? Do we see it in our families and friends?

Gerstenberger understands the beginning of our parasha as God’s attempt to break the tension between God and humanity after the heartbreak of the death of Nadav and Avihu. Often, we need to find ways to “break the ice” after a relationship has been ruptured or distanced. Does the Yom Kippur ritual serve this purpose? What can we do to begin to restore friendships and collegiality after moments of disappointment?

Theme #2: Of Goats and Men

Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. (Leviticus 16:21)

The idea of the scapegoat remains a curiosity – perhaps just as mysterious as the incident for which it is meant to atone.

Who is this “designated man” whose role in the most awesome service is to lead the scapegoat into the barrenness beyond, into eretz gzerah, or the punished land? In the original he is modestly called ish iti, which is closer to “a timely man” or “an occasional man.” This fit man, this timely man, this occasional man, this anonymous man, this marginal man, he carries sin away from holiness to the limits of the known. He is the escort of evil to hell. Appointed by the pure to the company of impurity, the timely man must scrub his clothes and wash himself upon his return from the edge of darkness, if he wishes to enter the camp. Surely he is the figure to which a modern imagination, exercised by the darkness that surrounds the light, may kindle most. — Leon Wieseltier, quoted in Congregation, David Rosenberg, ed.

The term “timely” means that he has been told to be ready for a particular time — he was told the day before Yom Kippur to be ready to perform his task on Yom Kippur. — Gur Aryeh

Why two goats on Yom Kippur? One to God; one to the Dark Side. … But are we not warned that they shall never again offer their sacrifices to demons? That refers to actual sacrifice to demons as used to be done, but here … the offering was [ultimately] for the Holy One. — Zohar 2:184b & 3:63a

Questions for Discussion:

Wieseltier is fascinated by the person who must escort the scapegoat designated for Azazel. We, too, are fascinated by people with the responsibility of being “behind the scenes” during curious or remarkable events. What questions can you imagine Wieseltier asking such a man, were they ever to meet? What questions would we ask? Should some questions be considered off-limits, especially given the religious sensitivity of this man’s responsibility? Are there reasonable limits for questioning those who do their most important work behind closed doors? Or would questioning the escort-man be a special case?

Gur Aryeh sees the scapegoat’s escort as someone who must be ready to perform his function at a moment’s notice. We can imagine that someone eligible for this responsibility must spend some time preparing for the possibility that he may be called into action. Periodically, we are faced with unexpected challenges that test our readiness and our ability to drop everything to focus on the task at hand. What are some of the most intimidating of these challenges? How can we prepare ourselves for the unexpected or for the expected which comes at a time we don’t know?

The Zohar tries to eliminate any notion that the Yom Kippur rituals involve demonic superstition, even if the name of one such activity is retained for some reason. According this theory, the name of an activity remains unchanged even though its function has changed. Are there examples of such anachronistic names today? When it does, do we retain the name as a touch of irony, or because it’s simply easier to keep the original name?

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