Acharei Mot, literally “after the deaths”, introduces the laws of Yom Kippur against the backdrop of the deaths of the son’s of Aaron. What is the connection between the two?
The climax of the inaugural week of the Tabernacle, the eighth day, forms the core of Torah. Almost a third of Torah took place on that single day.
We first met the day in the last chapter of Shemot (Exodus). In that depiction God’s Presence arrived in the Tabernacle and no one could enter. The goal of the book of Shemot was the creation of a nation committed to bring the Presence of God into the midst of humanity. From that perspective, once “the glory of God filled the Tabernacle” (40:35), the job has been done. Living in proximity to God’s Presence can inspire the greatness and Godliness within each of us.
Vayikra (Leviticus) offers a different paradigm. Right from the start God calls out to man, longingly. It is not inspiration, but intimacy that is sought. In the book of Vayikra the inaugural eighth day is revisited. Suddenly it is the day man could engage with God in loving embrace, entering the Holy of Holies.
Yet it ended in tragedy. Aaron’s two sons died during the festivities, for little more than overly spontaneous behaviour, bringing a “foreign fire that was not requested”. Relationship demands a profound respect for the boundaries of the other. Self-expression can be no excuse for violation.
The Yom Kippur service is an annual invitation from God to Israel to rejoin and reconnect at the deepest level. After Vayikra, Torah does not refer to itself as religion (dat), rather as relationship (brit). Relationship demands creativity, self-expression and spontaneity, but it requires developing a profound sensitivity to the requests, demands and boundaries of the Other.