Acharei Mos - Kedoshim - In Bounds
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Parshas Acharei Mos begins with a reference to the deaths of Nadav and
Avihu. It then presents the Yom Kippur service, the prohibitions against
bringing sacrifices outside of the Temple and against eating blood, and
concludes with a list of 15 prohibited intimate relationships. What is the
scope and sequence of these seemingly diverse topics?
When Aharon's two sons died Moshe comforted Aharon with the words, (10:3)
"Of this G-d spoke saying, I will be sanctified with those who are nearest
Me." Nadav and Avihu died because they attempted an intimacy with G-d that
was forbidden to them. They died because they did not respect the
boundaries that G-d had established for His relationship with them.
Instead, their fervor and desire for closeness with G-d allowed them to
ignore the basic discipline demanded of all relationships, and certainly of
a relationship with G-d. G-d's message was exceedingly clear, "Especially
those who are closest to Me must be careful not to become too familiar."
When Adam and Chava ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
they did not just simply go against G-d's express prohibition. The "Nachash
- serpent" presented them with a rationalization that allowed them to
justify their action. (Ber. 3:5)"And you will be like G-d, knowing good and
evil." The Nachash dangled before them the greatest incentive for not
listening to G-d. "What does G-d want from you? He wishes you to be like
Him. He wishes you to emulate His actions. He wishes you to spend your
lives delving into the profundity of His reality and teach all future
generations your ever emerging and expanding comprehension of His divinity.
He desires that you should do everything in your power to be "Like Him."
Therefore, even though G-d commanded you not to eat from the Tree of the
Knowledge of Good and Evil, He really wants you to do so. G-d is testing
your love. Will you desire to be so much like Him that you are prepared to
even go against His wishes to do so? Go ahead, eat from the forbidden fruit
so that you will be "Just like G-d."
Nadav and Avihu suffered from the same self-delusion as Adam and Chava.
Their desire to be close with G-d was greater than anything else in their
lives. Their desire to "know G-d," rivaled even the passions of their
father Aharon and their uncle Moshe. Yet, they had not attained the total
subjugation of self and ego that their elders had attained. They were not
as humble as Aharon and Moshe. Therefore, they were unwilling to deny
themselves their greatest passion. They justified their transgression as
the greatest expression of their love for G-d.
According to Rashi, the death warrant against Nadav and Avihu had already
been issued following Mattan Torah - the giving of the Torah. At the end of
Parshas Mishpatim the Torah recorded (Shemos, 24:9-12) how Moshe, Aharon,
Nadav, Avihu, and the 70 Elders shared a vision of "the G-d of Israel, and
under his feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork…" The episode
concludes with the words, (according to Rashi's interpretation) "G-d did
not punish the great men of the Children of Israel although they were
eating and drinking at the time of the vision." Rashi explains that Nadav
and Avihu and the 70 Elders were irreverent in their behavior. They should
not have been eating and drinking at such a momentous occasion. Their
insensitivity to the proper protocol and boundaries in their relationship
with G-d branded them as unworthy. However, G-d withheld His disfavor so as
not to mar the joy of Revelation with their deaths. (Rashi, Shemos, 24:10)
Nadav and Avihu's actions in the aftermath of Mattan Torah exhibited the
same insensitivity to the boundaries of their relationship with G-d as they
exhibited at the time of their deaths.
The Mishnah in Taanis (3:8) records the famous story from where Choni
Hamagul - Choni of the Circle received his unusual name.
Israel was suffering from a drought. In desperation, the Rabbis turned to
Choni for help. Choni told the Rabbis to return to their homes and prepare
for rain. At first he prayed and his prayers were not answered. He then
drew a circle on the ground. He stood in the center of the circle and
proclaimed, "G-d, your children have placed their trust in me. I swear by
Your great name that I will not budge from this circle until You extend
Your mercy to them." Needless to say, it began to rain.
At the end of the story the Rabbis said to Choni, "If not for the fact that
you are Choni, we would excommunicate you for your apparent irreverence
toward G-d. However, what can we do to you? You sin before G-d and
nevertheless He does your will! You are like a son who sins toward his
father and nevertheless the father does as his son desires!"
Why didn't G-d punish Choni for his chutzpah - arrogance? Why did G-d
listen to his demands? Choni was clearly a unique individual. However, we
need to understand why he was so unique? Why did he have the ability to
challenge G-d and still receive the showering of His divine blessings?
The key to understanding Choni Hamagul is the Hebrew word "Ratzon - will".
The Mishnah in Avos (2:4) records the statement of Rabbi Gamiliel. "Make
your will as the will of G-d so that G-d will make your will as His own."
The total Eved Hashem - Servant of G-d defines his own will by the will of
G-d. The true Eved - Servant has entirely subjugated himself to the will of
G-d. The true Eved defines his needs, desires, and dreams by the boundaries
of Halacha - Jewish Law. The true Eved is a truly humble individual.
Choni's uniqueness was in the totality of his humility. When Choni stood
within the circle and challenged G-d to do his will, Choni the person
ceased to exist. Instead, a servant of G-d and a servant of His children
stood in the circle. Choni did not challenge G-d for his personal
aggrandizement. There was no Choni to aggrandize! The person challenging
G-d to be merciful on His children was a person whose entire self was
defined by doing the will of G-d. Choni wanted one and only one thing, that
G-d shower His mercy upon His children. Therefore, G-d did what Choni
wanted because in essence it was what He wanted!
This was not the case with Nadav and Avihu. Even though we believe that
Nadav and Avihu were far greater than even Choni Hamagul; nevertheless, G-d
judges His closest servants with the most exacting criteria. On their
level, Nadav and Avihu had not totally disengaged their egos in relation to
G-d. When they brought their "illegal offering" of love they were not doing
the will of G-d - they were doing their own will. It was not for the sake
of His children. It was a reflection of their own desire removed from the
limits imposed by G-d. Therefore, Nadav and Avihu had to die.
Their deaths are immediately contrasted with the service on Yom Kippur that
could only be performed by the Kohain Gadol - the High Priest. Aharon and
Moshe were the only ones worthy of doing so because they were the only ones
who had attained the requisite degree of humility. The Kohain Gadol in the
Holy of Holies had to facilitate forgiveness for the entire nation. In
order to do so he had to awaken G-d's mercy for His children. Therefore, he
had to have subjugated his will to the will of G-d in the manner of Choni
Hamagul. Moshe and Aharon had done so. Nadav and Avihu had not.
The prohibition against sacrificing outside of the Temple follows
perfectly. The gift of prayer is the gift of our ability to have a personal
relationship with G-d. However, the parameters of that relationship are set
by G-d, not us. The essence of that relationship is accepting our total
dependency upon G-d. The essence of that relationship is subjugating our
will to the will of G-d. Regardless of personal convenience or desire, the
right to pray, the right to offer sacrifice is only to the extent that it
conforms to G-d's rules. Therefore, the true Servant of G-d offers homage
and thanksgiving the way G-d wants him to do, not the way he himself feels
like doing. To do any less or more is to be self-serving rather than
The last topic, the 15 prohibited intimate relationships, is the perfect
finale for this week's first Parsha. The Rambam in Hilchos Dayot - the Laws
of Character Traits and Dispositions, explains that human characteristics
exist on a continuum. Each Midah - character trait can be graphed as
existing between two opposing extremes. (E.g. Arrogance vs. Meekness)
Depending on the person, his character development, and the immediate
circumstances, the characteristic will be expressed closer to one extreme
or the other. The goal of a true Servant of G-d is to understand how G-d
wishes us to express each of our characteristics. That is accomplished
through studying how G-d Himself responds to the circumstances of the
world. Once we understand what G-d wants we can train ourselves to respond
in a similar way.
The Midah of Chesed - kindness is special to the Jewish people. It defined
the personality of Avraham Avinu and it is the most succinct description of
how G-d interacts with the universe. However, there is an extreme form of
Chesed that is its evil counterpart. On the one side of the continuum is
Chesed - loving-kindness. On the other side of the continuum is Arayos -
inappropriate intimacy. The parent who, G-d forbids, abuses his child
believes that he is expressing the purest form of love. He or she believes
that they are connecting to their child at a level that is only reserved
for the most trusting and loving of relationships. They believe that they
are benefiting their child. However, we know how tragically wrong they are.
We know how tragically evil their actions really are.
The Torah presented the fundamental laws of personal purity and morality at
the end of Acharei Mos because physical intimacy between people can either
sanctify or defile. To sanctify it must conform to the established
boundaries of G-d's will; otherwise, it will defile and destroy.
Nadav and Avihu did not conform to the established boundaries of their
relationship with G-d and they died. In order for the Kohain Gadol to
successfully facilitate forgiveness for the Jewish nation he had to conform
to the established boundaries of his relationship with G-d. The individual
who wanted to grow closer to G-d by offering a sacrifice could only do so
if he conformed to the established boundaries of his relationship with G-d
and brought his offering to the Temple. The individual who wishes to
express his or her love for another person is permitted to do so if the
expression of that love conforms to the established boundaries of his
relationship with G-d. Otherwise, his actions will destroy the very love
and intimacy he thought to create.
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.