This week’s Torah reading is particularly powerful and is also read on the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

The Torah portion for this week is Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30), meaning “After the Death” and referring to the passing of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.

This chapter is exceptionally distinct because it also serves as the Torah reading on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the year. Indeed, another major theme of Acharei Mot is the detailed account of the Yom Kippur service and rituals. The reading also discusses sacrificial offerings, blood and laws concerning intimacy.

Let’s take a look at the opening verse:

“God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they approached God, and they died.”

There are a number of questions here. For one, it seems somewhat odd that the Torah introduces Yom Kippur and its accompanying rituals with the death of Aaron’s sons. Furthermore, Aaron’s sons had died six months earlier! The loss of a child – let alone two – is a horrific tragedy. This is something from which a parent never recovers. Does Aaron really need the reminder?

Living Torah: The Laws are for our Physical and Spiritual Health

Famous commentator Rashi explains the need to repeat and, by extension, emphasize the death of Aaron’s sons. Rashi, quoting the Midrash (homiletic stories by rabbinic sages), presents the matter with the following analogy:

Just as a doctor (or anyone, for that matter) warns his patients not to engage in harmful activities that would injure or even kill others, the Torah is reminding Aaron, who was the High Priest responsible for the entire Yom Kippur service, not to repeat the mistakes that his sons had made. The Torah is warning Aaron to do everything exactly as commanded, without adding or detracting from any of the procedures.

But there’s more.

It is interesting to note that the verse states that God told Moses to tell Aaron, Al yavoh bechol et el hakodesh…velo yamut, which means, “Do not just come into the Holy of Holies whenever you feel like it, lest you die.” The term al yavoh usually refers to a Torah prohibition. As such, the verse can also be read as, “Make sure he does not violate the prohibition against entering the Holy of Holies in order to avoid the punishment of death.”

Rashi, however, does not take this approach. Rather, he translates it as, “He should not enter, for it will cause his death.” What this means is that instead of looking at the verse as a prohibition along with an accompanying punishment, Rashi explains, the verse is essentially a preventative measure in order to avoid a terrible consequence. This is why Rashi gives the analogy of a doctor and his patients.

Why am I sharing all these semantics and mental gymnastics with you?

Perhaps the Torah –via Rashi’s interpretation- is trying to convey to Aaron that his sons’ deaths were not the result of a punishment for violating a Divine decree, but rather the consequence of an irresponsible action. God does not impose His will upon us in order to oppress us. God treats us like a doctor treats his patients. The Torah’s instructions are for our well being. Whether we understand the meaning behind a commandment or not – whether it is about keeping kosher, eating Matza or when to enter the Holy of Holies – the Torah is one long prescription for our physical and spiritual health.

And this, my friends, is the Yom Kippur connection. Aaron had to hear this message, at this time, as he prepared for the Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur is the one day of the year completely devoted to expressing remorse for our mistakes. Aaron had to be reminded that God’s only agenda is our well-being, and with this, Aaron’s feelings of remorse and his efforts at gaining atonement for the Jewish people would be that much more genuine and heartfelt.

Author: Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
Date: Apr. 8, 2014