This past Shabbat in Israel, and this coming Shabbat in the Diaspora, we read/will read Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, a parsha with a paradox.
Acharei Mot opens with a prohibition against entering the sanctuary whenever one wishes — “al yavo be-khol et el ha-kodesh” — and recalls the death of Nadav and Avihu, who perished as a result of coming ‘too close’ to God. The Torah then describes the special Yom Kippur offerings. Following that is the prohibition of shechutei chutz, bringing sacrifices outside the precincts of the Temple, which the Torah explicitly compares to foreign worship, here called ‘zivchei se’irim’.
These two prohibitions are antithetical. The first prohibits too much proximity to God, the second, too much distance. The first is rooted in a lack of boundaries between man and God, over-familiarity, unbridled and unrestrained love. It threatens to burn man up, to eradicate his ego and subsume it in the infinite. To function in this world, man must keep his distance from God.
The second prohibition is explicitly compared to idolatry. It expresses overwhelming reverence, a sense that God is absolutely unapproachable, that there is no way to bridge the gap between us and Him.
Taken together, these two prohibitions strike a balance. We are not to come to close to God, nor may we run too far away. We must operate in the space between too much love and too much reverence. We can live because we avoid those extremes.
In between these two prohibitions, the Torah describes the Yom Kippur service. On Yom Kippur we have the exceptions to these two prohibitions. On one hand, the high priest performs a service in the sanctuary itself. On the other hand, a goat–the “se’ir la-Azazel,” the “scapegoat”–is taken outside the Temple precincts and hurled off of a desert cliff. This is the only sacrifice brought outside the Temple.
How are we to understand these Yom Kippur exceptions? Reb Tzadok has a wonderful piece (Dover Tzedek pp. 98-99) in which he describes a state of consciousness that lies beyond good and evil. It is attainable only rarely, but when it is attained, there are no limits or boundaries on how one approaches God. Extreme love and extreme reverence are acceptable.
There is another possibility: that Yom Kippur represents a much more difficult and heightened balance. Extreme proximity to God is warranted, but only when balanced by extreme distance. Extreme love must be countered by extreme awe. The two must be commensurate, or the hazards of each on its own still applies. This is very different from the paramount, year-round reality in which we remain balanced by eschewing the extremes of ahava and yir’ah. This is a balance achieved, rather, by experiencing those extremes in tandem.
This type of balance is rare and difficult. It is a tightrope with no safety net. Only on the holiest day of the year is the feat performed.
We have been privileged to see how Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l held together passions that we did not think could coexist. Like the spectators who lined up to see the high priest perform his sacred duty, we must have no pretensions of being able to accomplish this service, but we can bear witness to the fact that it is indeed possible in this world and appreciate the fact that we were able to behold such a marvel.
אשרי עין ראתה כל אלה