2016-06-30
The Book of Leviticus, from which this week's Torah portion, Aharei Mot, is taken, was dubbed quite appropriately by the rabbis "The Priest's Manual," which mirrors its (Greek-derived) English name, Leviticus ("Of the Levites," one of the priestly classes). For it is, essentially, a book of laws mostly pertaining to the elaborate sacrificial system organized and carried out by the priests.

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Despite its predominantly legal nature (from which nearly half of Judaism's 613 commandments and the same proportion of the Talmud are said to be based), the laws are embedded in a literary frame that imbues it with a tightly woven thematic cohesion, even geometric composition.

The name of the portion alone, Aharei Mot,--literally, "After the Death"--points to the sole literary "plot" found in the Book of Leviticus, a narrative that quite fittingly involves the inaugural priestly family of Aaron (Moses' brother). Otherwise, the story verges on the mysterious. In Chapter 10, two of Aaron's four sons, in their role as priests, innocently make an offering to God and are instantly struck dead. At the time, the Torah implicitly suggests that their "sin" for which they were so strenuously punished was that they offered an alien fire, "which [the Lord] commanded them not."

As the only narrative in a book devoted to lists of commandments and technical descriptions of rituals--including such details as where to sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice--the shocking story of Aaron's two well-intentioned and yet ill-fated sons, Nadab and Abihu, seems misplaced. The "retelling" of the story or allusion to it in this week's portion is only slightly more satisfying.

Chapter 16's slightly altered version of the incident tries to present it as containing a lesson for the surviving priests. "And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron when they came near before the Lord and died.... Speak to thy brother Aaron that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil before the covering which is upon the ark that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark cover." This version, pointing to the fact that Aaron's sons got too close to God (rather than mentioning the "strange fire"), is here contrasted with the moderation Aaron is commanded to have in approaching God.

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The second version of Nadab and Abihu, while still disturbing on some level, contains a basic truth about the Book of Leviticus and how it presents God's laws. For one thing, the incident is an example of the punishment karet--the most severe punishment meted out by Jewish law for only the worst transgressions and often translated as the "cut[ting] off [of the transgressor] from his people."

While vague in meaning (the rabbis understood it as a divine punishment), the word karet is quite obviously intended to remind us of the other "karet" in the Torah: li-kharat brit, the "cutting" of the covenant between God and the Israelites mentioned in Exodus. At the heart of both usages of the word is the concept of separation: The word expresses both the forging of God's covenant--separating Israel from all other nations--and the cancellation of His covenant with its transgressors, their separation from God's covenant.

This type of strange symmetry resurfaces frequently in the Book of Leviticus. Aaron's two dead sons, for example, are counterweighted by his two surviving sons, Eliezer and Ithamar, who perpetuate the priestly lineage. . Also in this portion are the two sacrificial goats of the Day of Atonement: one isredeemed (sacrificed to God), the other--the scapegoat--upon whose head the chief priest transfers the sins of the Israelites, is sent into the wilderness.

This subtle geometry is present in still other ways, this time circular. Just as the Israelites are the elect from among all the nations, so the priests are the elect from among the Israelites: They, the Levites, approach closest to God. So, concentric circles of holiness, with God in the middle, followed by the Levites, then the Children of Israel, is the functioning "theological map" underlying Levitical laws. "And you shall be a nation of priests," God commands His people when they are gathered at Mount Sinai. The priests are to the Children of Israel what the Children of Israel must be to the rest of the nations.

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Moreover, this idea reflects the organization of space in the Temple in Jerusalem, with its graduating level of holiness: from the outer court to, eventually, the Holies of Holies, which only the Great Priest may enter-and then but once a year.

Staying within the lines of the law is crucial. Underlying the

litany of God's laws is an anxiety that one may defile oneself, as well as an anxiety that one will strive to be too holy. Tread neither too far nor too close. Overstepping one's boundaries in either direction could be deserving of karet, separation. This is what God seems to be instructing Aaron when he reminds him of the death of his two sons.

The death of Nadab and Avihu (and later the deaths of Moses and Aaron) serve to remind us that there is nothing inherently holy about the Israelites or the priestly class: Following the law is what maintains their distinctiveness. This explains why the Levitical laws repeatedly include the strangers who "sojourn" among the Israelites as also subject to God's laws--they too can attain this level of holiness. When God excoriates Israel in the Book of Amos, which we also read this week, "Are you not to me like the children of Ethiopians, o children of Israel?" He is saying that the worst possible thing has occurred: Israel has allowed themselves to become like all others, and the borders of their world have ceased to matter.

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