l Samuel 20:18-42
If this Torah portion seems more familiar than most, it’s because the majority of the parashah is read on the day of Yom Kippur, when (hopefully) most of us are in shul.
Yet the name of the portion Acharei Mot (after the death) and its opening verse seem out of place. The reference is to Aaron the High Priest’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who tragically died during the celebration of the dedication and inauguration of the tabernacle. That story in detail had already been recounted several weeks ago in the portion of Shemini (10:1). Why is it mentioned again now? And what’s the connection between this tragic episode to the holiest day of the year; the day when we are sitting in synagogue pondering the year gone by and the year to come. Surely the Yom Kippur message and symbolisms of forgiveness and renewal should be front and center. Yet the title of the parashah for all the readings on this day is about death.
A challenge facing spiritual seekers who desire transcendent experiences and to achieve enlightenment is what happens the day after the high. The laws of physics dictate that what goes up must eventually descend. The same is true in the metaphysical realm. The greater the high, the lower the fall seems to feel. This explains the dichotomy and resulting depression that seems to follow. When we come down from the high, we lack the tools to translate and cultivate those moments to our everyday lives, leading to the need to create ever higher and perhaps more dangerous methods to recreate the experience.
One of the great mystics of the early 18th century was Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (1696-1743), known after his most famous work, a unique mystical commentary on the Torah called “Ohr HaChaim.” He is one of the few teachers of Israel who had the distinction of being called kadosh (holy).
In contradistinction to almost all of the classical interpretations of the story of Nadav and Avihu’s demise, Rabbi Chaim introduced the most revolutionary analysis. He wrote that, far from being an episode of sin and punishment, it is the story of humanity attempting to escape earthly and bodily boundaries and have the greatest spiritual experience possible. They longed so greatly to connect to God that their souls left their bodies, which could no longer contain such light. They quite literally OD’ed on G.O.D.
This perhaps explains why this story is so important. It serves as an introduction and cautionary tale for a proper approach to Yom Kippur for us all.
The Torah is concerned not so much with our ability to connect spiritually on Yom Kippur. Implanted in our soul, regardless of background or observance, is a spark that feels the awesomeness of the day. Rather, it is the day after, the morning we wake up and are no longer fasting: How do we recapture that intense spiritual feeling of belonging and connectivity to our souls and creator? Is life destined to be a series of isolated experiences separated by an expanse of time and a void? How to retain and infuse an ordinary workday with the sublime light of a once-yearly event?
While the Torah contains historical events and stories, it is foremost a guide and an instruction to everyday living.
Judaism we learn, isn’t only about the Yom Kippur moments in our lives, but what we do with that inspiration in the days and weeks following. Therefore we read this portion again now, halfway between last Yom Kippur and the upcoming one, to take stock. The greatest of highs, at the outset, must be grounded in the awareness that it is the mitzvot we do and how we live our everyday lives. By channeling the “Ohr ein Sof,” the infinite light, into finite physical acts, that is the ultimate purpose for why we were put on earth.
To escape from one’s self is easy; it’s getting back that’s tough. To lose one’s self either in the literal or the figurative sense even for the sake of God is not what is wanted of us; rather as our portion states regarding the observance of the mitzvot, “ Vachai Bahem” and you shall live with them (18:5). The Torah of life demands that we “live” for God.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.