In the opening of this week’s Torah reading, Leviticus 16, the Torah picks up the narrative of Leviticus 10, which had been interrupted by five chapters of details concerning ritual law. In Leviticus 10, we were told: “Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before God alien fire, which He (God), had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron: This is what God meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself Holy, and assert My authority before all the people. And Aaron was silent (Leviticus 10:1-3).”
We read this week: “God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God. God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover (Leviticus 16:1-2).”
By simply noting that after the death of his sons Nadav and Abihu Aaron and his remaining sons continue performing their ritual responsibilities, most particularly the ritual of atonement prescribed for Yom Kippur, this week’s Torah reading answers for me the question posed by the narrative in Chapter 10. After the initial silence in response to his sons’ deaths, the high priest of Israel continued to perform God’s service.
Many of the classic commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, have inferred from the reading of chapters 10 and 16 as a continuing narrative, that the sin for which Nadav and Abihu were executed was entering the Holy of Holies without Divine invitation. Others have suggested that the “aish zara,” the alien fire, is a reference to some form of idolatry. This past week Jews around the world celebrated the 62nd anniversary of Israel’s independence. Each year, the sounds and sights of celebration break forth on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, after a day of silence on Yom HaZikron, Israel’s Memorial Day, commemorating all who have fallen in defense of Israel’s inalienable right to be an “am hofshi b’artzeynu,” a free people in our homeland, the Land of Israel. Moreover, Yom Ha’Atzmaut is preceded on our Jewish liturgical calendar by Yom HaShoah, when we remember the 6 million who died in the ultimate aish zara, the alien fires of Auschwitz.
This week, as is often the case, Achre Mot, Leviticus 16-18, is read as the first half of a double Torah portion along with Kedoshim, Leviticus 19 & 20. This second parsha begins with the imperative “Kedoshim tihiyu! (Be holy!).” Leviticus 19:1-17 continues with a restating of the Ten Commandments. Verse 19:18, which is the physical center of the Torah, there being an equal number of verses both before and after it, states: “Love your neighbor as yourself, because I am Adonai your God.”
The great challenge that has continually faced Israel over the past 62 years has been how can the State of Israel, and in particular her armed forces, defend the nation and remain holy. A true act of heshbon hanefesh – an honest accounting, which is what Leviticus 16 directs us to undertake – would show that over the past 62 years the Israel Defense Forces have proven themselves to be the most moral and ethical fighting force on Earth. Not perfect, but nonetheless the best. Herein lies the challenge for us as diaspora Jews. We have a right and responsibility to defend Israel against the false accusations and character assassination that finds its way into halls of the United Nations and the court of public opinion. We know that the aish zara of Auschwitz was ignited and fueled by the big lies of anti-Semitism. However, the words from the Torah this week, kedoshim tihiyu, call out to me to admit that Israel, like all nations, and the leaders and citizens and soldiers of Israel, like all human beings, are imperfect. The description of the Yom Kippur ritual in Leviticus 16 stands as a reminder that we Jews are taught that we can and we must learn from our mistakes and always try to do better.
I am confident on this first Shabbat of Israel’s 63rd year of independence that in the year ahead, Israel will build upon its first 62 years of achievements and become a better nation. My prayer is that the Palestinians and Israel’s other neighbors will decide to open up their deaf ears and hear the call for peace coming from Jerusalem. My hope is that America will help Israel and the Palestinians to remove the stumbling blocks that Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran keep placing on the path to peace.
Achre mot kedoshim! After all the deaths of thousands of Jews and Arabs in a war that in fact began in 1921, may this be the year in which the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael will, in the words of Yehuda Amichai, “Beat their swords into plowshares and go on beating and make them into musical instruments so that whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.”