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Parashat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim
Wear your best for your execution and stand dignified. Your last recourse against randomness is how you act – if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour. You will always have the last word.
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb
After the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, last week’s portion ended with an admonition to separate the ritually clean from the unclean, “so they should not die as a result of their contamination, if they contaminate My Tabernacle” (Lev. 15:31). Moreover, in the book of Numbers, the families of the Levites are assigned to carry specific components of the Tabernacle when the Israelites break camp and move on to their next destination, and touching a part designated for a different family can be fatal. Unauthorized contact with holiness causes death. At its midpoint, after all the tales of heroism and magic, the Torah acknowledges that closeness to the Divine is fraught with danger. Indeed, it can be fatal.
The danger associated with closeness to God is articulated at the beginning of this portion: “And God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they brought their offerings before God and they died” (16:1). God then instructs Moses to warn Aaron not to enter the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle casually, lest he die (16:2). Immediately afterward, the text segues into a detailed enumeration of the highly structured Yom Kippur service (16:3ff).
This juxtaposition between the death of Aaron’s sons and the priestly duties is reminiscent of the speed with which Moses rushed past their actual moment of death to finalize the list of commandments of the dedication service. Staying true to the theme of Leviticus, our portion underscores the need to complete every aspect of the required service. Not to exceed, as we saw in the extreme case of the death of Aaron’s sons, but also not to think that spiritual good intent or heightened spiritual experience is a substitute for the physical rituals commanded by God.
“With this shall Aaron come to the Sanctuary” (16:3). “This,” say the rabbis, refers to an extensive list of commandments including the Sabbath, circumcision, the giving of tithes, animal sacrifices, commandments specific to the priestly family plus those unique to Aaron in his role as High Priest, and particularly, to the complex ritual performed by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. Bearing all “this,” Aaron may safely enter the holy precincts. Bearing all “this,” and at “this” specified time of Yom Kippur, and wearing “this” set of High Priestly garments, and enacting “this” ritual whereby all Israel atones, both individually and as a nation – with all this, Aaron may safely enter.
The Yom Kippur service includes the commandment of the scapegoat (16:8–22). Aaron brings two goats to the entrance of the Tabernacle and draws lots. One goat is designated by lot for God, the other for Azazel. Aaron sacrifices God’s goat on the altar, together with a bull and a ram. This is all part of the service in the Tabernacle – later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The goat for Azazel, the scapegoat, bears the sins of the entire nation: “Aaron shall lean his two hands on the head of the live goat and shall confess upon it all the iniquities of the children of Israel and all their rebellious transgressions and all their sins; and he shall put them onto the head of the goat and he shall send it by a designated man to the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon itself all their iniquities to the designated place, and he shall send the goat into the wilderness” (16:21-22).
One designated man takes the goat for Azazel and leads it out to the uninhabited wilderness, where he shoves it forcefully over a cliff edge. The goat tumbles down the sheer slope, unable to gain a foothold. He smashes against jagged outcrops and tumbles over sharp stones and is ripped to death long before he comes to rest at the bottom of the treacherous slope.
One randomly selected goat is sacrificed with pomp and ceremony, its throat cut by the High Priest in the holy confines of the Temple; the other is tossed from a high cliff-edge and meets its end in a desolate wasteland, with none but its killer as witness. Thus does the Torah place the utter randomness of life before us. Whether in high ceremony, among singing Levites and the swirling incense of the Temple, or in the cracked horror of the empty desert – we shall all surely die. We think we can judge a good death versus a bad one. But no one really knows. (Does the scapegoat rejoice, as it is led away from the Temple, that it will not have its throat cut like the other? Does the goat within the Temple prance before the other, proud to have been chosen by the High Priest?)
The rabbis downplay the designation “for Azazel” because of its overtones of superstition. Azazel is not identified in the Torah; the name is left a mystery. Azazel is described in later Jewish literature as a fallen angel. Some Islamic sources identify him as the devil. Whatever he – or it – is, Azazel seems to embody evil, or perhaps the hopelessness of the barren desert, as opposed to the order and formality of the camp with the perfect structure of the Tabernacle at its center. Azazel is the random emptiness of life, terrifying to contemplate, against which we fortify ourselves by hiding in our encampment, behind our walls, surrounded by the paltry comforts of priests with their singing and their headgear and their rituals. Priests who, like all of us, will also die one day.
The great rabbinic sage Nachmanides addresses this head-on. He says the Torah explicitly instructs us to send one goat as an offering to the forces of darkness. These forces, he says, are real. They are not mere superstition. The forces of evil are nowhere near as mighty as God, but they easily prevail in this world. It is as though God sits patiently awaiting our call, while the forces of darkness are filled with boundless energy. And remember that this is the God of whom the prophet Isaiah wrote (Is. 45:7), “I make light and I create darkness; I make peace and I create evil.” Living a moral life, a life of the spirit, requires constant attention. The Tabernacle stands in perfect equilibrium, but it is static. We, on the other hand, are forever changing, and it is a constant challenge to maintain our balance. It requires but the slightest momentary distraction for all our goodness to come tumbling down and to shatter.
People ask, How can a God who is all good (which is axiomatic for many, though not clearly stated in the text of the Torah) permit the existence of evil? Says Nachmanides, if we remove evil from God’s hands, we make God into a puny and powerless being, a bug to smash underfoot. Can there be anything in existence which God did not create? Anything that God does not at every moment sustain in existence? The fight against evil is not God’s task, but our own.
Nachmanides brings us back to the here and now. The randomness of life is very real; we experience it every moment. As noted both by the rabbis of old and by Nassim Taleb, above, if we had more complete information, then what we perceive as randomness would resolve itself. The problem, of course, is that each level of clarity only leads us to a higher level of randomness in an endless spiral.
This is the world in which we live. We bring both goats before God in order to sanctify all aspects of our lives. We are not “bribing the forces of darkness”; we are balancing our offerings, corresponding to the balance of good and evil in the world. Acknowledging concretely that both light and darkness are created by God.
Our lives are a constant battle against randomness. We build structures: calendars and schedules; nations and communities; cities and households; religions, conventions of behavior, societal norms. And still, from time to time all this blows up in our faces. The only thing we can do is to consciously be at our best under all conditions. As Taleb says, to dress in our finest suit as we are marched out to the firing squad.
We do not understand the universe. To quote Taleb again, “We cannot truly plan, because we do not understand the future.” To push back against the frightening randomness of life, we must “transform fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”
We must plan, taking into account our limitations; taking into account that all our plans are but the faint dew of our wishes. When the sun of reality rises upon our dreams, all that we hoped for and strove to accomplish will evaporate in a mist.
Still, we must build. We must plan and continue to forge a structure in the world, to hold at bay the forces of randomness, of confusion. Ultimately, of chaos.
Says Taleb, “It just takes guts.” Indeed.
The future is unwritten.
– Joe Strummer
This week’s reading opens with the overarching principle: “You shall be holy, because I am holy. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:2), a bewildering statement in the shadow of the death of Aaron’s sons. Now God exhorts us to be like God, “holy.” What are we to make of this? And if the calamity we have just witnessed is characteristic of God’s behavior, what shall we choose as our model?
Last week’s reading ended with an admonition not to follow the “abominable practices” of inhabitants of the land of Canaan, enumerating particularly a list of forbidden sezual parctices. Now, preparatory to the Israelites’ imminent possession of the land, we are commanded to be holy. And how do we separate the nice moral messages of this portion from the fact that the “holy” God addressing us now is the same God who slaughtered Nadab and Abihu when they sought to serve God in their own way?
In the context of the book of Leviticus, we are being challenged to look squarely at the terrors and randomness of reality – expressed in last week’s description of the scapegoat. This week’s portion shows that passive goodness does not suffice. After last week’s list of prohibitions, notably sexual prohibitions which articulate the sanctioned relationships within society, the Torah now proceeds to a list of commands in furtherance of the goal of becoming a just society, culminating in what the Talmud calls “the great principle in the Torah”: “You shall love your fellow as yourself – I am God” (19:18).
The text spills over with moral teachings required for a well-functioning society: Leave a corner of your field unharvested so the poor can take for themselves, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t swear false oaths. Don’t cheat, don’t rob, don’t withhold your workers’ wages. Don’t make fun of people behind their backs. Don’t permit perversion of justice, neither over-favoring the poor nor honoring the rich and the important. Don’t stand by while your neighbor’s blood is being shed. Talk out your differences; don’t bear a grudge or seek revenge. Love your neighbor as yourself. Signed, God (19:11–18).
The juxtaposition of this portion’s list of commands with the Canaanite abominations at the close of last week’s reading conveys the Torah’s true moral message: it is not sufficient to not do evil; we must actively do good. We must, in fact, become holy, the mechanism for which is the observance of God’s commandments – both the moral and the ritual – and constant mindfulness as we seek to internalize God’s vision for the world. Repeated throughout this portion is, “I am God,” “I am the Lord your God,” sealing the commandments over and over.
Like the sacrificial goats who prance out into the teeth of uncertainty, we are sent to bring God’s teaching into the world wherever we find ourselves, and under all circumstances. Fundamental to this is our everyday behavior: we are commanded to behave in God-like fashion, to behave as a holy people.
The Torah requires that we see God’s face in the face of the other, creating an imperative both to treat others well and to not harm them. Beyond this, the morality of the Torah challenges me to see God’s face in my own. To care for the world as though it were my own creation. To see myself as God sees me: a precious and necessary partner in Creation, one who actively makes the world a better place.
Ritual is one key that opens a door to this challenge. By binding us to the physical reality of our day-to-day existence, ritual emphasizes our obligation to imbue everything with holiness, and Jewish observance makes much of handling objects which, while not sacred in themselves, become sanctified when used in rituals: tying fringes on the corners of the prayer shawl, taking up the citrus fruit and the palm branch on the holiday of Sukkot, blowing the ram’s horn on Rosh Hashana. If we learn to sanctify the mute physical objects in the world, how much more sensitive will we be toward our own sanctity? How much more will we be aware of the sanctity of others?
God creates the physical world, and we dare not turn away from the physical in search of the spiritual. Our body is the receptacle for our soul, and this physical world is the receptacle for God’s holiness. Ritual is spiritual training, a springboard for giving charity, caring for the destitute, protecting the weak, feeding the hungry, creating a just society – and on a purely spiritual plane, for introspection and self-improvement. The ultimate spiritual encounter is to be found in this world, in this life
Love your neighbor as yourself
What does it mean to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And how does rebuke overcome the passion for revenge or bearing a grudge?
We always justify our own behavior. When others are angry, we say they are being unreasonable. But when we are angry, it is with good reason, and the other is at fault. Our anger is justified, other people’s anger is not.
If we look into our own hearts, we might at last come to understand human behavior. When we look at ourselves honestly, we regret behavior that does not live up to our own standards, and we acknowledge that we erred in permitting our emotions to dominate our behavior. We try to be aware of this, and to not permit it to happen again. We rebuke ourselves gently, with an understanding born of honest self-acceptance, with compassion for the hurt child within, and with the understanding that we must go through this process of fearless self-evaluation again and again. This is the core of the process of repentance and, crucially, of forgiveness.
Are others so different from ourselves? The frightened child cowering within my heart cowers and trembles equally in yours, in everyone’s. If we can learn to pause before lashing out in anger – to feel the deep hurt and fear emanating from the other – to learn to rebuke one another as gently as we rebuke ourselves, then we will truly be working to make the world a better place.
We can even catch a glimpse into God’s heart, as it were. In midrashic and talmudic literature, God is frequently depicted as sad, weeping over the pain God inflicts on God’s own children. The rabbis say God created the world with its own set of rules – we call them “nature” – and God agrees to play by those same rules. Because we have freedom of choice, God does not intervene to prevent us from behaving foolishly, from doing evil. From destroying others or ourselves. Then the rabbis of the Midrash and the Talmud see God weep, hear God’s anguished cries at the fate of humanity. No less than the sacrificial goats – one for God, one for Azazel – God also experiences and expresses the existential terror that runs through human existence, the agony of the fatal choices that face us each day.
The portion ends with a list of punishments, and it may be that they, too, point to the existential paradox of life: that for all the world’s beauty, we must also experience its harshness. God, having established the rules by which the universe operates, does not step in to interfere. When we drop a brick off a rooftop, it will fall whether we intended it or not. If a person is standing below and the brick hits them on the head, they will be killed whether we intended it or not; all our repentance will not alter physical reality. It is not God’s intention – and certainly not God’s wish – to punish. God told Adam and Eve there was a consequence to their act; the Torah now reminds us that all our actions have consequences as well. We must act; it is our mission to make this world a better place, to relieve suffering – and yet, we shall make mistakes.
We will make mistakes for which we, and others, will pay the price. But mistakes are not the purpose of life. We will all die. But death, too, is not the purpose of life. We must find and embrace the purpose of our lives – that is last week’s simple message as both goats perish. One dies all but painlessly; its throat slit. It is brought on the altar amidst incense and song. The other is cast down a ragged cliff face. Israel’s atonement cannot be partially bought. Both goats must go to their fate.
Who were the holy ones: Aaron and Moses, with their painstaking adherence to God’s instructions? Or Nadab and Abihu, with their spontaneous desire to go above and beyond? Our job, the Torah teaches, is to set ourselves apart for the work at hand. It requires restraint, both with regard to our negative responses toward others and with regard to our enthusiasm for our own spiritual fulfillment. Spiritual practice is ongoing. We shall never attain perfection, yet we dare not cease striving.
Says God, You were personally designated for a specific role, and Creation will not be complete until you attain self-realization. Strive to be holy, says God. Strive to be like Me – for whom mindfulness of My task is My eternal, unceasing activity. Do not cease until you find the path for which you were chosen. Once upon that path, do not cease.
Yours for a better world.