Acharei Mot – Keep your Distance
By Marc Shoffren
Shakespeare famously asked, ‘Can one desire too much of a good thing?’ The Torah sounds a warning, one that chimes with contemporary experience, which challenges this assertion. There are, in Torah and in life, many desires that can become too much of a good thing.
The start of Acharei Mot throws us back to Parashat Shemini, Vayikra chapter 10, when two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed for bringing esh zarah, strange fire. In doing so the parasha takes us back, past the laws for tzara’at (a leprosy-like affliction), to return to the narrative of the Israelites, but faithfully following a core theme of Leviticus: the concept of atonement, a process of realignment with God in order to rebalance and account for misdeeds.
Much of the opening of the parasha explores the limitations of how close Aaron can come to God and how he can approach God, predicated on the importance of him keeping a distance from the all-consuming presence of Adonai. There is a sense in the parasha that God is like the sun: as children learn from primary school experiments with plants, we require sunlight for growth and health, but too much exposure can be deadly.
The end of chapter 16 brings this to a point: ‘this shall be a law for all time: in the seventh month, on the tenth day … you shall practice self-denial…’ Appropriately, we read this section of Torah during the Yom Kippur morning service, and later immerse ourselves in the details of the process during the Temple service. When reading this on Yom Kippur, there is a real sense of danger, of the potential for things to go tragically wrong. Encountering the numinous, the presence of God, whilst normally held to be life-affirming, can also be destructive. In order to preserve life we need to keep an appropriate distance.
Later in the parasha the Torah gives us a view of the dark side of cult practices. While Aaron is instructed to ritually sprinkle the blood of sacrifices, blood consumption of other tribes (Nachmanides argues that this is a reference to Greek practices), along with the practices of the Egyptians, are branded as unacceptable. Used appropriately blood is a source and sign of life; consumed as a cult activity it is dangerous.
Bill Bryson comments that life is dependant on water, but that a small amount of water, mishandled, can easily kill us. In Torah, God is life-giver, but the encounter with God remains dangerous. We live lives surrounded by plenty, with abundant choices of sustenance and distraction to nourish and entertain us. However, like the high priest encountering God, too much of a good thing can damage or even kill us. Learning to manage our desires and moderate our addictions is an essential element of modernity. Our lives can all too easily unbalance and tip us into tragedy, but within the precarious balance of existence there is always the opportunity to realign with God, to rebalance our lives and make up for past misdeeds.
Marc Shoffren is the headteacher of Alma Primary, an inclusive Jewish school in North Finchley, and a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue. He is married to Shelley Marsh and father of Jordan and Eden, all of whom give him plenty to reflect on.