It’s hard to hide from the issue of death when the title of Torah reading is After the Death. So, the question must be: What aspect of death is on the table? I think most of us would love it if the information was about what happens after it. Alas, the Torah leaves that question open. Instead, we’re being informed about ways to avoid death. I guess that’s pretty important, too.
The parsha begins with God informing Moshe about some pretty crucial information for his brother Aharon, the Cohen Hagadol: The Eternal spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal. The Eternal said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aharon that he is not to come at will into the Shrine (KODESH, really what we call the KODESH HaKODESHIM) behind the curtain (PAROCHET), in front of the cover (KAPORET) that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover (Vayikra 16:1-2).
There’s a famous Rashi which presents the most accepted position about the story of the demise of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and God’s warning here: for if he comes into the Holy of Holies at any time other than Yom-Kippur he will die. Death is the result of any entry to the innermost sanctuary on any occasion other than Yom Kippur.
This is the best known opinion, but the Ibn Ezra suggests that the protection for entering the KODESH HaKODESHIM is burning KETORET (incense). He points out that God confirms all this when he explains:
Note, the meaning of ki be-anan era’eh (for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover) is, I will not appear to him except through the agency of a cloud.
The Ramban leads a team of commentaries who claim that the issue isn’t about special circumstances allowing the Cohen to enter. The issue is: They entered the Sanctuary while intoxicated by wine.
Entering sanctified precincts poses a danger. But what can alleviate the threat? A special occasion? A protecting ceremony? Or, perhaps, just making sure that you enter in the proper, respectful manner.
The Netziv, however, says: Aharon was permitted to enter into the Holy of Holies every day. Nevertheless, it had to be with preparation. However, he never gets specific about this ‘preparation’. What can it be? And, even more germane, what does it mean for us?
Rabbeinu Bechaye, in his introduction to our parsha, compares this whole situation to a verse in Proverbs:
When you sit down to dine with a ruler, Consider well who is before you (Mishlei 23:11). He then explains: If one is an intellectually oriented person, Solomon warns that one should not allow one’s intellectual curiosity to cause one to bite off more than one can chew. What he means is simple: you would do better to commit suicide than to reach beyond your intellectual capacity in coming close to the Lord.
In other words, the verse is a metaphor for entering into close proximity to the Divine Presence, and that endeavor requires humility and serious spiritual purpose. If one enters with arrogance and pride on one hand or a cavalier attitude on the other, the consequences will almost assuredly be dire. Let’s get more specific about how this applies to us
Reb Aharon Lichtenstein Z”L pondered the question of going up to the Temple Mount, Har Habayit, nowadays. He initially refers to the famous verses from Psalm 24: Who may ascend onto the mountain of the Eternal? And who may stand in His holy place? Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart; the one who hasn’t made false promises, the one who hasn’t sworn dishonestly (Tehillim 24:3-4). Clearly, one may go, but only with purity of deed and demeanor.
Reb Aharon then suggests:
One is forbidden to enter when not for the sake of a mitzva. Obviously, we must clarify “for the sake of a mitzva.” What is the law regarding a person who wishes to enter the Temple Mount in order to experience that unique feeling of intimacy with God? Is such entry considered “for the sake of a mitzva”? It is entirely possible that such entry is considered “for the sake of a mitzva.” Hence, a person who believes that visiting the TempleMount will enhance his fear of Heaven should be permitted to do so…
We can’t take spiritual experiences lightly. There must be seriousness of thought, intent, and action to enter that holy zone. We must carry this idea into all our Mitzvah performances. Stay focused and sincere.
The Ba’al Shem Tov was also concerned with this issue. He is reported (by his grandson the Toldot Ya’akov Yosef) to have said: One requires Divine help (GAVO’A) to be able to ascend from the lowest level to the highest. One must descend deep within himself, realizing that God is everywhere, based on the secret (SOD) embedded in the verse: The Eternal has prepared the Throne in Heaven, but His sovereignty extends everywhere (Tehillim 103:19). Only then can one ascend, having found the sparks of Divinity (NITZOTZOT) in one’s own deepest depths.
Do you want to visit the Throne? Experience the highest spiritual encounter? Fine, but begin by realizing that God is everywhere and everywhen, and act appropriately in every place and circumstance. Then you can experience the sublime. Oh, and if you really get it, and live a life predicated upon the constant presence of God, you won’t really need to go anywhere else. Congratulations!