(This week is a double portion, so Patrick and Michael each took on a portion for your education and enlightenment!)
Parshah Acharei rewinds back to the death of Aaron’s sons. In an earlier Torah portion, the brothers are seen going into the Mishkan with a “strange fire”. G-d then decides to burn them alive with the holy fire. Gross.
The reason for the death of Aaron’s sons is usually interpreted to be alcoholism and the fact that their sacrifice was incorrect. It’s like getting drunk and forgetting your girlfriend’s birthday, so you run to Wal-Mart and carelessly get her something she doesn’t want and she gets angry at you for acting like an idiot.
But it never says that Aaron’s sons were bad guys or that their offering was bad…it just wasn’t what G-d was asking for, and they were consumed by the fire. There’s a midrash that says Aaron’s sons were so pure and holy, that what they brought to the Mishkan was so great, that they were consumed by holy fire and became a part of G-d’s energy. How cool is that?
Regardless, Parshah Acharei is the aftermath. It’s where Moses teaches rules about atonement, sexuality, diet and more. The idea is that the death of Aaron’s sons was so tragic, that more rules had to be put into place to make sure people really understood what was going down in the Tent of Meeting.
People tend to look at this parshah as authoritarian: you screw up, so G-d makes rules for you to follow. I just wonder if its the opposite. Could it be that Aaron’s sons got to connect with G-d in a way that was actually more powerful than anything that the Hebrews had ever seen, and that G-d and Moses knew that the Hebrews would say, “wait, how come I don’t get to be consumed by G-d’s fire and commune with the Creator of the Universe? What makes Aaron’s drunk kids so special?”
So G-d makes some rules for the Hebrews to follow, so they can feel special. “Don’t worry,” G-d is saying, “follow these rules and you can enjoy the Mishkan in your own miraculous way.”
The double portion this week is balancing act, a presentation that shows us that there are two natures to the commandments G-d has given us. In the first portion Acharei, G-d lays down the law. He gives us the ethical part, the social part, the commandments that are to be a guide to our interactions with others. In the second part, Kedoshim, G-d gives us the spirit of the law.
The core of Kedoshim is the marriage of ritual and ethics. Kedoshim is the “source code for holiness”. It is a breakdown and explanation in detail of the code that makes up what we, as Jews, have to do to be holy. At the beginning, G-d tells us “You shall be holy, for I, G-d your G-d, am holy”. How do we do this? G-d has told us.
You cannot be whole, or holy, if you are not full, and the only way to be full is to be a participant in both the worlds of ritual and ethics. In fact, the commandments are a mix of ethical and religious injunctions, the ethical and social ones guiding our interactions with others, and religious mitzvot detailing the fulfillment of ritual aspects of Judaism. One without the other doesn’t work. You have heartless ethics and wishy-washy, ethereal ritual that isn’t grounded in the human condition.
As the Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Ramban) puts it, “holiness is not limited to the observance of any particular category of commandments”. You can follow all of the mitzvot, and still be what he calls “a degenerate with the permission of the Torah”! The point is that without love, without spirit, you cannot fulfill a mitzvah, you cannot be whole, or holy. G-d demands more than the letter of the law. He demands that we be holy as He is holy, and He tells us that here.