Parashah of the week: Acharei Mot

“And the Eternal One spoke to Moses after the death םf the two sons of Aaron” Leviticus 10:1


Thus starts the introduction to the sacrificial ritual for Yom Kippur. How odd that it refers to the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, a story which happened a couple of weeks ago in Parashat Shemini.

Their death was a tragic event: they had died during their ordination into the priesthood. What should have been a solemn yet joyous event, became a tragedy. As is often the case with such events it is not entirely clear what happened.

Leviticus 10:1 refers to the young men bringing “alien fire”, which they had not been commanded to. They died instantaneously. It remains a mystery what exactly was this “alien fire”. Some link it to God’s command to Aaron straight after, forbidding serving priests wine or intoxicants when they enter the sanctuary (Levitcus 10:9).

Perhaps they were intoxicated, or perhaps they were too enthusiastic and had created their own ceremony; others suggested that it wasn’t enthusiasm but arrogance and irreverence toward their father and uncle Moses.

There is no doubt that the event was shocking to all who witnessed it — so much so, that our parashah still refers to it, even after there have been quite a number of interruptions to the story. Thus, the reference is not there to inform us, when God spoke to Moses, but that God spoke after that tremendous event.

The death of Aaron’s sons has become a seminal moment in history — a moment which defines time from which there will always be a looking back; a before and after. Just as there will always be a world before and after 9-11 or Covid, or October 7.

We can imagine that for Aaron, and perhaps for all who witnessed it, this event left a fissure in the relationship between God and Israel (particularly as Aaron was not able to mourn the deaths of his sons at the time of the event) and there is a need for rapprochement from both sides — at-one-ment- a chance to repair the fissure, of becoming whole again — whole with history and with God.

That might take time, but above all it takes a ritual that allows us to let go of the painful past; that ritual is the Yom Kippur ritual, the description of which follows in our portion.

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