Parshah Summary – P’shat (literal level)
The parshah opens in the aftermath of the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and God warns that one must enter the kadosh kadoshim, the innermost chamber of the Sanctuary, in a particular way in order for it to be safe. Only the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, may enter to offer the sacred ketoret (incense) once per year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Another feature of Yom Kippur is the casting of lots over two goats, to determine which one should be offered to God, and which should be sent off to “Azazel” in order to carry away the sins of the Children of Israel. The parshah then warns against bringing korbanot (animal or meal offerings) anywhere but in the Sanctuary (or later the Temple), forbids the consumption of blood, and details the laws of incest and other types of prohibited sexual relations.
Torah of Awakening
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֒יךָ֒ וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכׇל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ מִבֵּ֖ית לַפָּרֹ֑כֶת אֶל־פְּנֵ֨י הַכַּפֹּ֜רֶת אֲשֶׁ֤ר עַל־הָאָרֹן֙ וְלֹ֣א יָמ֔וּת כִּ֚י בֶּֽעָנָ֔ן אֵרָאֶ֖ה עַל־הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃
Hashem said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover…
- Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:2; Parshat Akharei Mot
There is a story that once Rabbi Yehezkel of Kozmir strolled with his young son in the Zaksi Gardens in Warsaw. His son turned to him with a question: “Abba, whenever we come here, I feel such a peace and holiness, unlike I feel anywhere else. I would expect to find it when I’m studying Torah, but instead I feel it here.”
Reb Yehezkel answered: “As you know, it says in the Prophets: מְלֹא כָל הָאָֽרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ – the whole world is filled with the Divine Presence. But, sometimes we’re blocked from recognizing it.”
“But Abba,” pressed his son, “Why should I feel blocked when I’m learning Torah? And why would I feel it so strongly in this non-religious place?”
“Let me tell you a story,” answered the rebbe. “In the days before Reb Simhah Bunem of Pshischah evolved into great tzaddik, he would commute to the city of Danzig and minister to the community there, even though he lived in Lublin. When he returned to Lublin, he would always spend the first Shabbos with his rebbe, the “Seer” – Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak.
“One time when he arrived back at Lublin, he felt disconnected from the holiness he had felt while he was in Danzig. To make matters worse, the Seer wouldn’t give him the usual greeting of Shalom, and in fact behaved rather coldly to Reb Simha.
Figuring this was just a mistake, he returned to the Seer some hours later, hoping to get his rebbe’s attention, but again the Seer just ignored him. He left feeling alone and rejected. Then, a certain Talmudic teaching came to his mind: that a person beset with unexpected tribulations should scrutinize their actions. So, he mentally scrutinized every detail of his conduct in Danzig, but he couldn’t recall anything he had done wrong. If anything, he noted with satisfaction that this visit was definitely of the kind that he liked to nickname ‘a good Danzig,’ for he had brought down such holy ecstasy in the prayers he had led there. But then he remembered the rest of the teaching. It goes on to say:
פִּשְׁפֵּשׁ וְלֹא מָצָא יִתְלֶה בְּבִטּוּל תּוֹרָה – If he sought and did not find, let him ascribe it to the diminishing (bitul) of Torah.’ (Berakhot 5a:9) Meaning, that his suffering must be caused by having not studied enough. Taking this advice to heart, Reb Simhah decided to start studying right then and there. Opening his Talmud, he sat down and studied earnestly all that day and night. Suddenly, a novel light on the Talmudic teaching dawned on him. He turned the words over in his mind once more, and began to think that perhaps what the sages really meant by their advice was not that he didn’t study enough, but that he wasn’t ‘diminished’ (bitul) by his studying. Rather than humbling himself with Torah, all that book knowledge was simply building up his own ego, and blocking his connection with the Presence. As soon as he realized this, he put down his book, let go of his “scholar,” identity, and began to open to the Presence that is always present.
Later that evening, the Seer greeted him warmly: ‘Danzig, as you know, is not such a religious place, yet the Divine Presence is everywhere, as it says: מְלֹא כָל הָאָֽרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ The whole world is filled with Its Presence… if you could feel It while you were there, this was no great feat accomplished by your extensive learning; it was because, in your ecstasy, you opened to That which is always already present.’”
The heart is imprisoned by the burden of whatever we compulsively “hold.” If we want to “let go” and be free, we have to look at why we “hold on.” There are two main reasons we tend to “hold on” to things. First, there can be holding on to the fear about what might happen. It is true – the future is uncertain, and knowing this can create the feeling of being out of control. Holding onto time – meaning, thinking about the future – can give us a false sense of control. There is often the unconscious belief that if we worry about something enough, we will be able to control it.
Of course, that is absurd, but we can unconsciously believe it because of a deeper fear: the fear of experiencing the uncertainty itself. If we really let go of our worry about what might happen, we must confront the experience of really not knowing, of being uncertain. But, if we allow ourselves to experience the uncertainty, our resistance to it will dissipate. The key is: don’t block the feeling of uncertainty with thought – on the other side of uncertainty is liberation – the expansive and simple dwelling with Being in the present.
Second, there can be negativity about something from the past; in our resistance to a memory, we keep the memory alive as though it is still happening in the present. If we want to let go of the burden of the past, we must confront the fact that the past is truly over. The deeper level of this is confronting our own mortality. Everything, eventually, will be “over.” But, if we let go of the past, and allow ourselves to feel the insecurity of knowing that everything is passing, then we can see – there is a gift being offered right now. It is precious; it is fragile, like a flower – this precious moment.
וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכׇל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ – He shall not come at all times into the Holy (Sanctuary)… We may try to reach holiness by working out the past in our minds, or by insisting on a certain future, but as it says: …he shall not come at all times. In other words, you cannot enter the sacred through time!
To enter the sacred, we must leave time behind, and enter it Now. Let your grasping after the future dissipate; let your clinging to the past be released. There is a hint further on in the description of the Yom Kippur rite…
גּוֹרָ֤ל אֶחָד֙ לַיהֹוָ֔ה וְגוֹרָ֥ל אֶחָ֖ד לַעֲזָאזֵֽל׃… וְלָקַ֖ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֣י הַשְּׂעִירִ֑ם– Aaron shall take the two he-goats...one marked for Hashem and the other marked for Azazel… The goat for the Divine means: the future is in the hands of the Divine. This goat is slaughtered and burned. Meaning: we must experience the “burning” of uncertainty and “slaughter” our grasping after control. The word Azazel is composed of two words: עוֹז oz means “strength”, and אָזַל azal means “exhausted, used up.” In other words, the “strength” of the past is “used up” – it is over. Let it go, or it will use you up! This goat is let go to roam free into the wilderness.
The past is gone, the future is in the hands of the Divine. But those Divine hands are not separate from your hands. Set your hands free – put down the narratives – and receive the “flower” of this moment, as it is, free from the burden of time. This is the Path of י Yud – Trust and Simplicity. In this week of Shabbat Akharei Mot, the “Sabbath After the Death,” let us practice dropping excess thought and let go of time. May we live in this sacred moment that is always already present…
Read past teachings on Akharei Mot HERE.
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