Choose Life: Thoughts on Yom Kippur

The framing of the Yom Kippur ritual in Torah is fascinating and disturbing. In the Torah the Yom Kippur ritual, which is actually the one off desert ritual of cleansing the Tabernacle of sin, which was then converted by the Holiness code, and then the Rabbis, into the annual Yom Kippur Temple ritual, is introduced with the following verses: 

וַיְדַבֵּר ה׳ אֶל מֹשֶׁה אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי ה׳ וַיָּמֻתוּ

וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ אֶל מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאַל יָבֹא בְכָל עֵת אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת אֶל פְּנֵי 

הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאָרֹן וְלֹא יָמוּת כִּי בֶּעָנָן אֵרָאֶה עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת

And God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons when they came forward before God and died. And God said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron your brother, that he not come at all times into the sacred zone within the curtain in front of the cover that is on the Ark, lest he die. For in the cloud I shall appear over the cover.”

As one of the great Hassidic masters says: והספיקות רבו/and the questions are many. In these two verses, God speaks to Moses twice, וידבר ה׳ and then ויאמר ה׳, but only after the second introduction “and God said to Moses” do we hear what God said. Aaron only had two sons, so would it not have been enough to say Aaron’s sons rather than Aaron’s two sons? The verse says that God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons. This might imply that it was immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu—but that happened a while ago, and God has said many things between then and now. Also, speaking of Nadav and Avihu, why did the Torah not mention them by name rather than just saying Aaron’s two sons? Why is the incident of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths described as בקרבתם לפני ה׳ וימותו/when they came forward before God and died, rather than offering an explanation for why they died as in Leviticus 10, where it says that they brought foreign or strange fire before God? The verse here seems to be saying that they merely came “close to” God, or “came before” God and they died. 

However, the greatest question that arises is this: Why is the cleansing of the Tabernacle, that which eventually becomes the highly choreographed Temple ritual of Yom Kippur, of personal and communal atonement, introduced in this more than a little intimidating or frightening way? The ritual is located in time by saying that it happened after the deaths of Aaron’s two sons, and the commandment of the ritual is bounded by the warning that Aaron cannot enter the Holy when ever he wants, else he will die. It is only in the following specific manner that Aaron might enter the Holy, with a specific choreography. 

So, in the same breath, it seems that God gives Aaron through Moses the secret to cleansing Israel from sin, and also warns him that it is really dangerous. 


Well, I am not, going to answer all these questions. I am also, of course, not the first person to have asked these questions. I am most interested in two of the questions. First, why there is no reason for Nadav and Avihu’s death here, aside from “they came close to God.” Second, why is this the way that the Yom Kippur ritual is framed or, at least, introduced?

One of the earliest answers is found in the Sifra, a midrashic commentary on Leviticus. The Sifra addresses the question: why are there two “sayings,” and what was said in the first “saying.” In doing this the Sifra also answers the question: why did God mention the death of Aaron’s two children in introduction the atonement ritual. 


״וַיֹּאמֶר יי אֶל מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאַל יָבֹא״ – וְאֵין אָנוּ יוֹדְעִים מַה נֶּאֱמַר לוֹ בַּדִּבּוּר הָרִאשׁוֹן

הָיָה רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: מָשְׁלוּ מָשָׁל, לְמָה הַדָּבָר דּוֹמֶה

לְחוֹלֶה שֶׁנִּכְנַס אֶצְלוֹ רוֹפֵא

אָמַר לוֹ: ״אַל תִּשְׁתֶּה צוֹנִים, אַל תִּשְׁכַּב בַּטַּחַב!״

וּבָא אַחֵר וְאָמַר לוֹ: ״אַל תִּשְׁתֶּה צוֹנִים, אַל תִּשְׁכַּב בַּטַּחַב, שֶׁלֹּא תָמוּת!״

וּבָא אַחֵר וְאָמַר לוֹ: ״אַל תִּשְׁתֶּה צוֹנִים, אַל תִּשְׁכַּב בַּטַּחַב, שֶׁלֹּא תָמוּת כְּדֶרֶךְ שֶׁמֵּת פְּלוֹנִי!״

זֶה זֵרְזוֹ יָתֵר מִכֻּלָּם

לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר ״אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן

וַיֹּאמֶר יי אֶל מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאַל יָבֹא ויקרא ט״ז:א׳

“And God said to Moses: Speak to Aaron your brother, and let him not come at all times”: — But we do not know what was said to him the first time (i.e., after 16:1 “And God spoke to Moses, etc.”)! R. Elazar b. Azaryah was wont to say: To what may this be compared? To a patient who visited a doctor and was told by him: “Do not drink cold and do not lie in wet,” after which a different doctor said to him: “Do not drink cold and do not lie in wet, so that you do not die as so and so died.” The latter directive is the most effective. This is the thrust of “after the death of the two sons of Aaron… And God said to Moses: ‘Speak to Aaron your brother and let him not come at all times,'”

The Sifra suggests that locating the introduction of the Atonement ritual temporally after the death of Aaron’s two children was by way of cautioning Aaron. Do this or you might suffer the same fate as your children. So the first “statement” וידבר ה׳ אל משה was a wordless statement whose meaning was nonetheless very clear. “Your children blew it. Don’t blow it.”

A later midrash, Pesikta deRab Kahanah, employs a classic midrashic technique, the petihta to introduce these verses. A petihta introduces verses which are thematically close but textually far from the verse being commented upon. In this instance, the midrash cites a verse from Kohelet, Ecclesiastes (9:2). 

“All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad,[a] the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.”

The midrash leverages this verse to say that it makes no difference whether one is good or evil, they all die; comparing in this vein Noah and Pharoah, Moses and Aaron with the spies; finally Aaron’s sons with Korach’s band: “these (i.e. Korach’s band) entered to sacrifice in the midst of a dispute [with Moses] and they ended up burnt; and these (Nadav and Avihu) entered to sacrifice not  in the midst of a dispute (i.e. properly) and they ended up burnt.” In true Kohelet fashion the midrash seems to say that Aaron’s sons did not die as a result of any sin, or perhaps for any reason at all. They just died. As the Talmud says: יש נספה ללא משפט/ there are those who die without having been judged. That is, there is no reason.

The 13th century Zohar, the central text of the mystical tradition, goes in a different direction, answering the question “why introduce the atonement ritual with the death of Aaron’s children?” The Zohar also employs the petihta technique. However, the Zohar “opens” patah its comment with a seeming contradiction between two verses in Psalms. On the one hand, Psalms 2:11 עבדו את ה׳ ביראה וגילו ברעדה, Serve God with fear, rejoice with trembling. On the other hand עבדו את ה׳ בשמחה באו לפניו ברננה, Serve God with joy, come before God with dancing. One path of service is fear and trembling, while the other verse call for joy and dancing. How does the Zohar deal with this seeming contradiction? I’m glad you asked.

“Serve God with fear,” for, says the Zohar, all service that people are obligated to serve God needs “fear”/יראה. To fear God. As a result of the fear of God a person will find that after they will fulfill the commandments with joy. About this is written (Deut. 10) “what does God your God demand of you? Only this: only to fear” מה ה׳ אלהיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה.

The Zohar seems to be saying that the Torah introduces the fear of death in order to put Aaron, and subsequently all of us, into the right frame of mind within which to worship God—first fear. Once the fear is there, then one might do the actual commandments with joy.

The Hassidic tradition looks at the death of Aaron’s sons in a different light. The death was not a punishment for there was no sin. In different ways, various Hassidic masters claim that Nadav and Avihu’s souls were caught up in a spiritual activity that their bodies could not contain, on the order of the four Sages who entered paradise. Amongst them Ben Azzai “looked and died.” Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoi, one of the two main students of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidut, explains that as a result of Ben Azzai’s soul’s overwhelming love for God, his soul departed from his body and he died. This, Reb Yaakov Yosef says, is what happened to Nadav and Avihu. He understands the phrase בקרבתם לפני ה׳, as they drew near to God, to mean “in their souls’ cleaving to God to the point that it separated from their bodies.” This is the general tenor of the Hassidic tradition.

The Apter Rebbe, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s grandfather, whose name was also Abraham Joshua Heschel (or Avraham Yehoshua Heshl) adds in this vein that they had brought themselves into such a deep and intimate relationship with the upper realms that they both knew that if they did not separate themselves from the Divine somewhat their souls would separate from their bodies—and yet they did not want to separate themselves from the sweet and intimate supernal pleasure, so they died. 

And so the deaths of Nadav and Avihu hang over the Yom Kippur cleansing ritual as a threat and a promise of transcendence. If you don’t do this appropriately you will die as they did. Or if you manage to cleave to the Divine in greatest ardor you will die as they did. 

So where does that leave us? 

We have been conditioned by our culture, and our cultural memory, to venerate those who face death, and perhaps even moreso, those who give their lives in the service of this or that cause. From the akeidah, the binding of Isaac which we read on Rosh Hashanah — for which there is a long tradition, possibly going back to the Torah itself, in which Abraham actually did kill Isaac —to resistance at Masada recorded by Josephus, to the Jewish partisans in WWII in the forests and in the Warsaw ghetto. We instinctively feel that if someone is willing to give their life for something, that gives it an added level of gravity, of moral seriousness, perhaps even of truth. Martyrs are venerated. Soldiers are venerated. Freedom fighters are venerated. 

We have an instinctive feeling that the reason for this is that it is a unique and rare action that someone is willing to give up their life for something greater than themselves. There is deep cultural approbation for this act: those about whom we say במותם צוו לנו חיים/in their deaths they charged us to live; those about whom we say they “gave the last full measure of devotion”. Yet, the stark truth is that there is an almost endless supply of people who are and have been willing to do just that. The number of people who have given their lives for something supposedly greater than themselves is enormous, thousands, hundreds of thousands, probably millions throughout history. It is neither rare nor unique. It is only tragic.

Perhaps then, we might change the angle of our vision. 

The only reason we read the akeidah on Rosh Hashanah is because there is a second day. The Talmud (Megilah 31a) has the following:

On Rosh Hashanah [we read] “On the seventh month” (Numbers 29) [that which we read nowadays as the maftir aliyah] … and there are those who say (Genesis 21) “God took note of Sarah” …. Nowadays, that there are two days [of Rosh Hashanah] on the first day [we read] according to the opinion of the “those who say” [i.e. Genesis 21], and the next day “Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.” (Genesis 22) The original reading of Rosh Hashanah, therefore, was the drama of the birth of Isaac and the troubled relations in the family of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. It had to do with the problematics of living and covenant and strife and lying—the things of life. Okay not everybody’s life, but life. It is only because we have a second day of Rosh Hashanah, because of the way the calendar had to be set and the new moon announced and on and on, that we read the binding of Isaac. And then, of course, that becomes the focus and takes up all the oxygen in the room.

In that vein, perhaps we should rethink this opening. The death of Nadav and Avihu is not supposed to frame the recounting of the cleansing ritual of the Tabernacle. That is why, perhaps, they are not named. More importantly, nothing is said about them. In the same way as Aaron was silent וידם אהרון at his sons’ deaths in the Tabernacle, here God is silent about that death. God’s silence announces that that is not what the ritual is about. It is time to cleanse the Tabernacle and get beyond that. Tell Aaron that he is to do this in a way that he comes out the other side; that he does this so that he cleans the sins out of the Tabernacle, so that he cleans Israel’s sins, and that another year of life can start. 

Yom Kippur is a holiday, a celebration. We perform the possibility of purity. The possibility of forgiveness. The possibility of transcendence. Not transcending life. Not having our souls leave our bodies to cling to the divine. Rather having our bodies and souls transcend the boundaries of the merely possible

On the day after Yom Kippur we go back to the streets, to the limits of what is possible, to the daily struggle for what is right and just. Today, for twenty five hours we live in the realm of the impossible, transcending the boundaries of our collective limitations to create a world in which the Shekhinah will be present, when God will destroy death forever, wipe the tears away from all faces, when we will see the face of God in each other’s face, and each other’s face in the face of God. And we do this here in this world, in this community, in this room. 

Then we take that back home to our families, our community, to the streets. To live beyond our community. To live relationally. To live in solidarity. To live with each other, and with other Others, deeply. To live justice, to live freedom, to live liberation. 

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