“I’ve got you covered.” For anyone who has found themselves in a difficult situation, there is great comfort in knowing that someone has got us covered. Perhaps someone may provide cover for us to escape, or they may cover our story, or cover our losses. In the first of this week’s double Torah portion of Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, we learn about the power of covering and about the day devoted to covering known as Yom Kippur.
At the end of the story of Noah, human beings are left on earth while God remains at a distance in heaven. Before the flood, human beings were able to talk directly to God as one speaks to a friend, but after the flood, Noah was only able to draw close to God by sending up sweet-smelling smoke as an offering. As we come to this week’s portion, we stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai with the hope of drawing close to God again. We know God is present on the mountain when a cloud blankets the top of Sinai. Rather than God’s presence being tangible, it is represented in the amorphous anan hakavod, “The Cloud of Glory,” which is as manifest as God becomes. As close as God is on the mountain, the Children of Israel are still separated from God’s presence by a boundary that maintains the people’s distance from the Cloud of Glory. Later, God instructs the Children of Israel to build the Mishkan, the place on earth where God’s presence will dwell among us. Upon its completion and purification and along with our own purification, the Cloud of Glory descends from Mt. Sinai and covers the Kaporet which is itself the cover of the Ark of the Covenant.
The name of the first Torah portion, Acharei Mot, literally means “after the death” of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. In a previous portion, Nadav and Avihu bring a “strange” or perhaps “foreign” fire towards God’s presence. Just as Noah used fire to create smoke that rose up to God, and their father Aaron offered up a sacrifice that he turned into smoke that reached God, Nadav and Avihu wished to draw close to God as well.
In many ways they acted like young lovers who feel inextricably drawn to one another. This feeling, called limerence, is powerful and intoxicating, but it can also be dangerous. People can become lovesick and ignore their own health and safety for the sake of closeness. This is what happened to Nadav and Avihu as they desperately wanted to approach God’s presence as it covered the Ark. They were like a boyfriend or girlfriend who constantly calls the person they love until their pestering drives their potential lover away. Nadav and Avihu’s yearning to be close to God led them to bring a foreign fire into God’s presence which provoked a powerful and deadly reaction.
In this week’s portion, we are told that only Aaron, in the role of High Priest, may approach the most holy place with God’s presence covering the Ark of the Covenant. Not only may the High Priest alone have access to God’s presence, but he may only enter once a year on the day that became known as Yom Kippur. The word Kippur is related to the word Kaporet, the cover of the Ark. Yom Kippur is the day of covering, the day when our sins are shrouded from God’s sight. Not only does Aaron enter the most holy place, but Aaron creates a human-made cloud of smoke that rises up and mingles with the Cloud of Glory. Everything is covered. The Ten Commandments are covered by the Kaporet; the Kaporet is covered by God who is obscured in the Cloud of Glory, and our human cloud, created by Aaron, comingles with the divine cloud. At that moment, in that holy place, we are as close to God as we can ever be. The smoke that represents us intermingles with the cloud that represents God’s presence. In that moment, we affirm the Covenant and all that our agreement covers; God covers our sins and forgives us; God’s presence covers us, sheltering us from harm. In turn, we affirm the purpose of the curtain that covers God’s presence. As much as we wish to be constantly close to God and even possess God’s powers, there must be a boundary separating us from the divine. If we strive for closeness with divinity, we can only do so safely when recognizing the need for placing limits on our desires.