In the second verse of Acharei Mot, God begins detailing some laws of sacrifices.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִיךָ֒ וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכָל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ מִבֵּ֖ית לַפָּרֹ֑כֶת אֶל־פְּנֵ֨י הַכַּפֹּ֜רֶת אֲשֶׁ֤ר עַל־הָאָרֹן֙ וְלֹ֣א יָמ֔וּת כִּ֚י בֶּֽעָנָ֔ן אֵרָאֶ֖ה עַל־הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃
The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.
He goes on to list policies and procedures for entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, and many restrictions on sacrifices.
But before anything, God reminds Moshe and Aaron of the tragic death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, in Parashat Shemini.
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י מ֔וֹת שְׁנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן בְּקָרְבָתָ֥ם לִפְנֵי־יְהוָ֖ה וַיָּמֻֽתוּ׃
The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD.
Why did God preface his details of the laws of sacrifices on Yom Kippur and the procedures for entering the Holy of Holies with a reminder of the death of Nadav Avihu?
There are certain eternal truths, things that have always been true. However, those truths are difficult to put into practice—except as a response to an event that takes place.
Think about how the Torah frames our obligation to be kind to strangers and foreigners. כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים – “Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Of course, it is true that we should be kind to strangers regardless of our own experience. But the Torah understands that its teaching is more powerful when framed as a response to what we went through in Egypt.
In the Ancient Near East, sacrifice was an everyday occurrence. That was the commonplace way people related to their idolatrous gods. The Almighty and Judaism believe that sacrifice ought to be a rare and limited phenomenon. Only specific people at specific times in a specific location for specific reasons are to give sacrifices. This was a message that God had for the Jewish people from the beginning of the Book of Leviticus. But it wasn’t heeded. Nadav and Avihu did not listen, and they brought an improper, unwanted sacrifice, and were punished for it. That is why just as God is about to teach Aaron the rules and regulations of sacrifice, for pedagogical reasons, He frames those commands as a response to their death, saying, here is how such suffering and such deaths can be prevented in the future.
That is how we ought to view our current situation. Of course we should do everything we can to prevent the spread of illness: it was always true that we should wash our hands well and stay home if we are sick. The crisis the world is now facing has taught us these things, which were true anyway, all too well. I don’t know why this is happening now and I don’t claim to know God’s plan: only that the proper response is to follow the guidelines of doctors and experts, and also to be sure to keep healthy and sanitary practices long after we are past this extreme period of social distancing; it is an eternal lesson.
That same principle of a response to an event is what made the formation of the State of Israel possible. It is an eternal truth that we, the Jewish people, have a right to our homeland in the land of Israel. But it wasn’t until the Holocaust that the world recognized the need for a Jewish state.
That’s what Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote about in his Kol Dodi Dofek. He writes that evil and suffering we experience demand that we respond to them with action. He explains that formation of a Jewish state in the land of Israel was the best response to the suffering of the Shoah. Not, God forbid, the reason why the Sho’ah happened – that we do not know, but our response to it was to form the state.
Even though it was an eternal truth, even though there had already been major waves of Aliyah and the Zionist movement started long before. Just as when God taught Aaron about the limited nature of sacrifice in Judaism, He felt He had to frame it as a response to the death of Nadav and Avihu, the world only came to see the necessity of a Jewish state after the Shoah.
But that is only the first part of a response – there is a crucial second component. Our response has to be meaningful. After all, following the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron could have said, “Forget it! I’m not bringing any sacrifices! What’s the point? I am leaving Moshe, God, and the Jewish path altogether!” Those are possible and plausible responses, but they were not his responses. Instead, he said, “I will stick to it, learn from what has happened, and do things right.” Why? Because of what immediately follows. Kedoshim Tihyu. Be Holy. The reason why Aaron didn’t jump ship is that he understood the Jewish people has a mission in this world, to be a light unto the nations. The whole sacrificial service of Yom Kippur only matters if it’s followed by being holy, by doing the right thing by being moral, ethical people. By serving as an example to others.
That is our calling right now. To lead the world by example, to follow healthy practices לפנים משורת הדין, beyond what the law requires. But it also means to be a source of Kedusha, holiness. To continue davening and learning, and utilizing the wondrous technologies available to us for those purposes. And also to lead with Kedusha in our interactions בין אדם לחבירו, in our relations with others. To offer nichum aveilim, consolation to mourners, on the phone, visiting the sick on the phone; to be kind, generous, and forgiving with the people with whom we live: our spouses, parents, siblings, children, and roommates. To call and check in on people we know are alone and lonely, so they know we care. Even to smile (from a distance) and be friendly at the grocery store. The response to Acharei Mot – the response to a terrible situation – is Kedoshim Tihyu – is to be as holy as possible and to exhibit that Kedusha in all aspects of our lives.
As we turn from Yom HaZikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut, we hope and we pray that the State of Israel remains safe and secure and healthy – because Medinat Israel is not merely a sanctuary for Jews in response to the Holcoaust: it is to serve a positive role in the world, to lead by example and bring that message of Kedusha to the world.
There are so many soldiers captive, or missing in action. There are yet more who died in combat, defending our land and protecting its citizens. There are even more who are injured; and above all there are countless families who are affected by all of these, who mourn or are in pain because of what befell their loved ones. This year they hurt even more, as they cannot honor them in the same way they have for years. And so our response of Kedoshim Tihyu is even more significant than ever: it must be that their sacrifices were not for naught, because we, and our brothers and sisters in Israel, live righteous lives in their merit and in their memory.
And we also pray the same for ourselves: that we are socially distancing for a reason, l’kiyum ha’olam, for the world to persist, that we continue to daven and to learn and to live lives of Yosher, living up to high moral and ethical standards. Because in a world that can be so dark, in a world Acharei Mot – after so many deaths – we have a mission to be Kedoshim, to bring to the world holiness and light.