Five Rashis, Acharei Mot: Modes of Conduct, in the Mishkan and Out

Making It Real

This week’s parsha opens with a warning to Aharon and all kohanim against entering the Kodesh Kodashim, the Holy of Holies, without the proper ceremony (and, after Aharon, other than on Yom Kippur). 16;1 times these instruction to “after the death of Aharon’s two sons.” Rashi tells us that R. Elazar b. Azaryah says that is much like a doctor who warns a patient that certain behavior or diet can lead to death, as it did in a specific case known to both doctor and patient, rather than simply warning about diet and behavior in general.

The first doctor more effectively alerted the patient to the need to follow these rules, and that is what Hashem was doing here. On one level, it is a reminder of what should be banal and yet needs frequent repetition, that if we speak theoretically, our points will not penetrate as well.

When we need the other to act on what we are saying, we need to bring it home to them.

I find it interesting that R. Elazar b. Azaryah picked up on this, since we know of his concern with practicalities, from an early age. The famous miracle of his beard developing gray streaks overnight was Hashem’s response to his worry that without the right look he would not garner the respect he needed to lead the Sanhedrin. Tempting as the job was, he could not feel good about taking it unless he knew he had the technicalities under control. It makes sense that he would be the one to see the felicity in Hashem’s expression of these commandments.

The Role of Lots

One part of the Yom Kippur service was to take two goats, choose between them by lot, and send one to be thrown off a cliff, the other to be offered as a sin-offering in the Mishkan. Rashi to 16;8, on the words ונתן אהרן, lays out how it worked—one goat was to the kohen’s right, one to his left. The kohen would put his hands into a bowl which had two pieces of wood, take one in each hand and place them on the goats. One would have “for Hashem,” and would be offered in the Mishkan, the other, its’ lot saying “to Azazel” would be sent to the desert.

Along with tradition’s assumption that the goats were to be as similar to each other as possible, the procedure seems calculated to emphasize the lack of a difference—it’s not good enough, for example to place one piece of wood on one goat, and understand that the other is whatever is left. What happens to each of these goats, which are otherwise identical, is fully determined by the lot, by a decision process outside of human control.

It’s a message that’s relevant more broadly as well—part of life (perhaps the part that allows us to be forgiven for our sins) is knowing how much is outside our control, like a lottery (which, of course, we assume is directed by Hashem). We cannot and do not control even our atonement process. It is, to me, a reminder relevant throughout the year, because the search for and insistence on control can itself be damaging.

Much Ado About Mistreating the Mishkan

16;16 has a big reveal that we sometimes overlook. When the Torah refers to the kohen atoning מטמאת בני ישראל, the impurities of the Jewish people, Rashi notes that it means those who unwittingly entered the Mishkan when ritually impure, without finding out about it afterwards (had they found out, they would have to bring a personal sacrifice to atone).

Rashi reminds us, first, that sacrifices atone for unwitting sins, usually, not purposeful or deliberate ones. Much of the central battle of religion, controlling our temptations, and our attempts to secure forgiveness for when we fail, is outside the purview of sacrifice.

Second, more directly relevant here, the ceremonies in the Mishkan/Beit haMikdash on Yom Kippur day were about atoning for entry to the Mishkan/Beit haMikdash when ritually impure. Once that was taken care of, the Jewish people’s relationship with the Sanctuary again sin-free, the atonement for their other sins happens with the offering of the other goat, the one thrown off the scape, away from the public eye. The Mishkan sacrifices take care of the first, comparatively tiny, pieces of atonement. The rest comes almost on its own.

The Crucible of Egypt and Canaan

Introducing the sexual prohibitions, 18;3 warns us against replicating the actions of the land of Egypt, where we lived, and of the land of Canaan, that we were about to conquer. Rashi comments, on the words כמעשה ארץ מצרים and אשר אני מביא, that the verse teaches us that the mores of the Egyptians and Canaanites, and particularly the Canaanites the Jews conquered, were more perverted than any others.

It raises the question of why Hashem placed us there; why would our time in the “iron crucible” that formed us, be in a nation whose mores (sexual and otherwise) were the worst in the world. Why would the land that Hashem gave us for all of history be a land originally inhabited by peoples that equaled the Egyptians in their evil?

Rashi doesn’t say, but I speculate that it was actually to ease our way to seeing the difference between right and wrong. At the edges, it can be hard to see a bright line separating what Hashem tells us is right and what others see as right. Growing up as a nation among those who saw the worst manifestations of our baser selves as perfectly fine, taking our first national conquests from others equally in the wrong, we should have been able to see how far they had gone from the life Hashem wanted.

It wasn’t that Hashem asked us to be a little more stringent here and there on the niceties of conduct—it was a deeply corrupt way of life in ways that should have been obvious to us. It didn’t work out that way, but to me that explains the thought process behind placing us in these problematic environments.

The Land Spewing Us Out

18;28 warns that yielding to the proscribed sexual urges will lead to the Land vomiting us out. On the words ולא תקיא, Rashi analogizes it to a prince eating something disgusting. His sensitive digestive tract will bring it up, naturally, involuntarily.

The Land of Israel, Rashi says (as does Ramban), does not tolerate sinners (seemingly, sinners of a certain level of seriousness, since these sexual sins are among the most serious in halachah). It instead, as Onkelos translates it, empties itself of those sinners.

Two points: First, that Rashi sees exile as natural, although science wouldn’t recognize it. It’s not that Hashem becomes angry with us, as it were, and punishes us by kicking us out.  Rather, part of how the universe works, by creation and not by miraculous intervention, is that the Land is sensitive to and intolerant of sin, sending sinners elsewhere. (That would mean today, as well, mistreating the Land by sinning in it would be an error that could lead to consequences we would not want).

It also implies that the Land has a different time frame than ours. A prince’s digestive system rejects bad food immediately; we lived on the Land for hundreds of years (twice) before it spewed us out. That longer window of opportunity gives us the chance to overcome our failings, improve ourselves such that we can deserve to stay, before the Land does what it does.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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