Parashat Acharei Mot is the sixth parasha in Leviticus. It opens with the verse: “And the LORD spoke unto Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD, and died; and the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover.”
“After the death” (Acharei Mot) refers to the death of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two sons, whose story is told in Parashat Shemini.
“And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.”
The Sifra interprets Nadab and Abihu’s act as an outburst of love: Nadab and Abihu took their offering in joy, for when they saw the new fire come from God, they went to add one act of love to another act of love.
Rashi interprets that Moses comforts his brother Aaron for the loss of his sons by saying: “This is what the Lord meant when He said: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people’… I thought that either you or I would be stricken, but now I know that they [Nadab and Abihu] are greater than you or me.”
Parashat Acharei Mot continues to describe the work of the High Priest in the Temple during Yom Kippur, the only day in which the High Priest is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. From this we can infer that holiness is defined as separation, as an experience that occurs at a specific time and place. Holiness seeks precision and perfection that do not exist in daily life; it is present only during one unique day, through a unique ceremony.
We can see Nadab and Abihu’s act as an act of love that exceeded its boundaries thus consuming, and literally burning the two lovers of God. Does a spiritual experience necessarily consume and burn? Does holiness have to be confined by time and place lest it consumes and destroys?
God tells Moses: “Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover”. Therefore, holiness is not spontaneous, but guarded and kept only for the few.
However, if we interpret Nadab and Abihu’s love as a spiritual yearning to the divine, a love that went overboard, therefore losing its right measure, the High Priest’s ceremonial entrance into the Holy of Holies is not necessarily a sacrificial worship unique to Yom Kippur, but rather a ritual that enables a proximity to the divine anytime.
The Vilna Gaon (HaGra) interprets: “It is not as you might think… rather any time he wished, he could enter, provided he entered according to this procedure.” What is the procedure? “[He] made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel”. One should not enter the Holy of Holies for oneself alone, but for all the human circles that surround one: the individual (for himself), his family and community (for his household), and the whole of Israel (all the assembly of Israel).
In Parashat Kedoshim, there is a similar interpretation of holiness. Parashat Kedoshim opens with the verse: “And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy”. Later it is said: “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the LORD”.
“Ye shall be holy” comes before a set of social rules: not to lie, not to cheat, to be fair, and then “love thy neighbor”. Therefore, holiness is found in one’s love to the ‘Other’, in a society of just trial and social fairness. In the daily act of human proximity and love, when one intertwines with the ‘Other’, there’s a measure of holiness.
We can understand “he come not at all times into the holy place” as separation, as a singular day in which the few enter the Holy of Holies. From a different perspective, we can understand “he come not at all times into the holy place” as an offering of skillful means, as an awareness to the ‘Other’ that enables us to enter into the Holy of Holies every day, everywhere.
Much of the sacred worship described in Parashat Acharei Mot entails rituals of sacrifice and blood. In contemporary terminology we can replace animal sacrifice with acts of kindness, with listening and giving. “Love thy neighbor” does not mean to lose oneself in the ‘Other’, nor love him or her to death. “Love thy neighbor” means a conscious life in which we are aware of our being part of a large human network, part of the cycles that incorporate holiness: “…himself …his household, and …the assembly of Israel”.