Ari Sacher

“Confluence” Parashat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5778

Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, have just died because [Vayikra 10:1] “they brought before Hashem foreign fire, which He had not commanded them”[1]. The Torah now gives explicit instructions that will ensure that such a tragedy never recurs [Vayikra 16:1-2]: “Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons, when they drew near before Hashem and they died. Hashem said to Moshe: Speak to your brother Aharon that he should not come at all times (b’chol et) into the Holy within the dividing curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he should not die”. Aharon should not enter the Mishkan “at all times” – whenever he pleases. There would be certain times that he is permitted to enter and certain times that he must remain outside.

It is well known that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) could enter the Holy of Holies – the holiest place in the universe – only once a year, on Yom Kippur. So we would expect the Torah to tell us something like “Speak to your brother Aharon that he should not come at all times into the Holy. He may enter only on Yom Kippur”. Unsurprisingly, that is indeed what the Torah tells us [Vayikra 16:34]: “[Entering the Holy of Holies] shall be as an eternal statute for you, to effect atonement upon the children of Israel, for all their sins, once each year.” Surprisingly, the Torah waits thirty-two verses before telling us this. Over those verses the Torah describes the Yom Kippur service (avoda) in intricate detail: the offering of sacrifices, multiple trips to the mikveh, and the offering of incense. Only as an afterthought does the Torah tell us “Oh, by the way, this service I’ve just told you all about is performed on Yom Kippur, the one day of the year that the Kohen can enter the Holy of Holies.”  Why does the Torah wait so long before answering its own question?

One answer could be that the Torah couldn’t tell us that the Kohen could enter the Holy of Holies only on Yom Kippur until it had first introduced us to Yom Kippur. The Torah does not introduce the High Holidays until Parashat Emor, seven chapters in the future. And so first the Torah acquaints us with Yom Kippur [Vayikra 16:30]: “For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before Hashem you shall be cleansed from all your sins” and only then are we told that on Yom Kippur, and only on Yom Kippur, can the Kohen Gadol enter the Holy of Holies and live to tell about it. Nevertheless, this answer does not solve our problem, it only kicks it a few feet down the path. Recall that the Torah was going to answer the question “When may the Kohen enter the Holy of Holies?” The answer to that question is “He may enter only on Yom Kippur”. To answer that question the Torah was forced to ask and answer another question: “What is Yom Kippur?” The answer to that question is “Yom Kippur is the tenth day of Tishrei, the day on which Hashem forgives our sins”. The problem is that the Torah spends nearly thirty verses answering a question that it never asked: “What does the Yom Kippur service look like?”

The source of our problem lies in a misunderstanding of the Hebrew “b’chol et”, translated above as “at any time”. It turns out that “et” means much more than that. In the story of Purim, Mordechai tries to convince Queen Esther that she must go to the king to plead for the Jews to prevent an impending massacre. Esther is not convinced. She hems and haws, preferring a strategy of laissez faire. Mordechai is vehement [Esther 4:14]: “For if you remain silent at this time (et), relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere and you and your father’s household will perish; and who knows, perhaps because of a time (et) like this you became queen?” Mordechai is telling Esther to open her eyes: “Do you think your being here is just a coincidence? Out of all the people in the Persian Empire who could have been chosen to be queen, it just so happened that the king fell for you? Do you think it is a quirk of fate that you attained this lofty position at the same time that Haman decided to exterminate all of the Jews in the Persian Empire? Make no mistake: You are the right person in the right place at the right time”. An “et” is more than just a point on the axis of time. An “et” is a confluence. Mathematically speaking, an “et” is a point in multi-dimensional space, where time, place, and circumstance all come together. Referring back to the conditions for Aharon entering the Holy of Holies, the time – the date – was only one dimension of the multi-dimensional “et”. There were other dimensions: Aharon could enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur only if he was holding a firepan of burning incense, only if he had offered all of the required sacrifices, and only if he had bathed in the mikveh. It is the confluence of time, space, and preparation that opens the door to the Holy of Holies.

This leads us to the most critical element of the “et” and that is our response to the confluence. Mordechai does not merely tell the queen to open her eyes and to recognize that this moment was created just for her. He is telling her that she must now act: You are the right person in the right place at the right time and so now you must do the right thing[2]. Responding to the “et” is equally applicable regarding Aharon’s entering the Holy of Holies. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch notes that the Kohen may enter the Mishkan only as part of the process of offering of sacrifices. Even if all of the preconditions have been met, he cannot enter the Mishkan arbitrarily, not even to prostrate before Hashem[3]. The confluence of time, space and preparation opens the door, but Aharon must work hard to keep it open.

This week we celebrate the State of Israel’s seventieth Day of Independence. The prophet Zephaniah describes the future redemption with the following words [3:20]: “At that time (et) I will bring you, and at [that] time (et) I will gather you, for I will make you a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your captivities before your eyes”. It took two thousand years but here we are. The return of Am Yisrael to the Land of Israel required a confluence. In the late nineteenth century, Jews began to feel a yearning for their homeland and small groups of people began to return. Anti-Semitism became ever more rampant, culminating in the Holocaust, in which we lost a full third of our nation[4]. And then defying logic, on November 29, 1947, 33 out of 46 countries voted in the United Nations for a partition of Mandatory Palestine at the end of the British Mandate, paving the way for the Declaration of Independence on the fifth day of Iyyar, 5708, May 14, 1948. The confluences didn’t stop there. Increasing anti-Semitism in Arab countries resulted in the expulsion of their Jewish population, most of whom were absorbed by the fledgling state. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened the floodgates to a massive Aliya of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, many of whom form the backbone of Israel’s burgeoning high-tech industry. In seventy short years Israel has gone from an economic nightmare to an economic powerhouse. We have become net exporters of water and energy, two commodities that we had nearly exhausted only ten years ago. On the religious front, there are more people learning Torah in Israel today than ever before. To paraphrase Mordechai, we are the right nation in the right place at the right time.

And now we must do the right thing. Zephaniah’s double use of the word “et” demands this of us. Zephaniah forbids us to sit back and to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Those of us who live here must continue to build, to innovate, to defend, and to study Torah. Those of us who don’t live here – and here I engage in extreme candour – must seriously ask themselves if they want to spend the rest of their lives watching as all the pieces of the puzzle come together except for the one piece they hold in their hands.


Shabbat Shalom and Chag Ha’Atzmaut Sameach,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] Aharon’s sons die in Parashat Shemini, three parshiot ago. The reason that parashiot Tazria and Metzora serve as buffers between the death of Aharon’s sons and our parasha is a topic for another shiur.

[2] Rav J.B. Soloveichik comments that Mordechai and Esther were in disagreement as to the definition of “the right thing”. Mordechai felt that Esther must directly approach the king without delay, while Esther thought of a more devious plan that involved framing Haman.

[3] See the commentary of the Kessef Mishna on Hilchot Bi’at HaMikdash [2:4].

[4] I have no idea what the connection between the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel is, but I would be a fool to assert that there is none.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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