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Creating a New Future (Achrei Mot/Kedoshim 05/02/20)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Creating a New Future
Last week’s Torah reading might have sounded familiar, for it’s the same text that we read every year on Yom Kippur. The High Priest brings a number of offerings and follows a strict regime of protocols ultimately culminating in the forgiveness and purification of the Jewish People. While these practices might seem more relevant four months from now, how they came to be is pertinent to us right now.
One of the most fascinating rituals of Yom Kippur is when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies with his firepan of incense. Carrying a large spoon full of incense in one hand and a pan filled with coals in the other, he enters the exalted chamber. He lays the pan down on the floor next to the Ark of the Covenant and sprinkles the incense upon the coals. As the aromatic scents begin to waft, before the intense presence of God, the High Priest prays on behalf of himself, his family, the Jewish people, and the world.
It’s a magnificent ritual that arouses our senses and imagination. How would we feel, what would we with say, with such a private audience with God?
Based on the sequence of events, we would think the name of the Parsha should be “Yom Kippur”, “Encounter”, or the like. But its name is Acharei Mot, “After the deaths of the two sons of Aharon. The rituals of Yom Kippur are tied to the deaths of Aharon’s two sons for they are the impetus behind this ritual.
Three readings earlier in Leviticus, on the day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle at the base of Mt. Sinai, Aharon’s oldest two sons, Nadav and Avihu died. While everyone was celebrating in the courtyard of the Tabernacle, they entered into the Holy of Holies with firepans of incense, hoping to have their own communion with God. The encounter was too much for them, and they died.
Their deaths were a tragedy for Aharon and his family but also for all of Israel. Not only did their deaths mar the festivities of the day, but the catastrophe created the sentiment that while God may dwell among us, we can’t approach God’s presence. It put a limit on the transcendence of humankind. People don’t like to live with limits.
So, the people cried out. And in response, God created a day and a ritual to go beyond all limits. The day is Yom Kippur, and the ritual is a human entering the Holies of Holies, having communion with the most powerful presence of God’s immanence on Earth. When the High Priest, the emissary of the Jewish People, entered the Holy of Holies, we all went in with him. All of the people gained a taste of that closeness to God.
Parshat Acharei Mot and the innovation of Yom Kippur was a response to the outcry of humanity. An answer to a multitude of prayers and desires. There is efficacy to the unified will of the many.
Today the will of the many is to get back to work again, to touch one’s family once more, and to return to our normal lives and loves.
I’m not sure if life will ever fully return to “normal” but humankind will surely adapt. What that adaptation will look like might depend upon our outcry, our true desires.
We don’t live in Biblical times. Back then Moses and the Prophets were able to tell us what God is implementing. Yet if we could go back in time and observe the events from our 21st-century perspective, the events might look different. Perhaps the whole idea of Yom Kippur came from the thrust and drive of the Jewish people. Maybe when Moses retold the story, he placed God as the driver, but in reality, God was just answering us.
Is it our will to go back to everything as it was before, or is it our will to have a life that allows us health, wealth, spiritual and emotional growth, joy, knowledge, and love?
Please add your desires to this list. Life will go on, but before we envision the future, we should envision what we really want out of the future. Only then will we be worthy to see that manifest in the next Parsha.

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