The main subject of Acharei-Mot is the instructions given to Aaron, the High Priest, concerning the Yom Kippur service. This is preceded by its opening verse which revisits the death by fire of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu.
This incident first appeared a few chapters earlier (Leviticus 10:1-2), where the deaths were explained as a consequence of the sons’ having brought strange fire before God. The reappearance of this disturbing episode in Acharei-Mot evokes the original shock of the deaths; its insinuating presence next to the Yom Kippur service, however, also suggests a thematic, rather than chronological, connection between the two events.
The Midrash (Sifra 1:3-4) explains that the narrative sequence of the death of Aaron’s sons and the instructions on when and how Aaron should enter the holy sanctuary is an intentional juxtaposition. Nadab and Abihu’s unbidden entry into the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle was an act of religious ecstasy, the expression of a primal desire to draw closer to God. By contrast, the strict and precise details of the High Priest’s service on Yom Kippur counter the excesses of this uncontained ecstasy; the materials and precise measurements of the curtain, cover and the ark inside the sanctuary give physical shape and order to the more anarchic dimension of the sacred.
The sages noted that “there were not joyful days in Israel like the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur” . What these verses show us is that our relationship with the Divine exists in the balance between intense love and joy on the one hand, and the laws and framework that strengthen and sustain this connection.