Commentary For Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

4 May

In the first half of this week’s double parshah, we learn about the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. As part of this service, the High Priest was commanded to take two handfuls of incense with him into the Holy of Holies and put them on a fire so that they created a cloud of smoke that would obscure the area immediately above the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Lev. 16:12-13). This is one of just two places in the Torah where someone is specifically commanded to take “handfuls” of something. The other place is in chapter nine of Exodus, where Moses and Aaron are commanded to each take handfuls of soot and for Moses to throw them into the air, where upon the soot starts to spread out all over the land of Egypt, initiating the plague of boils.

Fortunately, in the case of the Yom Kippur service, the handfuls are meant to help atone for our sins rather than to punish us for them. We learn this from the story of Korach (Numbers 16) who fomented a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. After God punishes the rebels by having the ground open up and swallow them and all of their belongings, the rest of the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for the deaths, saying, “you two have brought death upon The Lord’s people (Num. 17:6).” This angers God because it shows an inability to understand not just the sin of Korach and his followers, but to understand that the power to cause supernatural events- as well as the right to judge sinners- lies not with Moses or Aaron, but with God. This same mistake is what caused Pharaoh’s downfall, and just like with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, God now sends a plague upon the Israelites.

To make expiation on the Israelites’ behalf, Aaron takes some of the incense used in the Tabernacle, puts it on himself, and stands among the people. Those who realized the error of their ways and repented survived the plague, while those who did not do so died, still believing that an external force- Moses and Aaron- was the cause of deaths, and failing to realize that they had brought their suffering upon themselves. They suffered the same fate as the Egyptians who even after five plagues still failed to realize their own culpability in their suffering. If the plagues would stop once the Israelites were freed and Pharaoh was not willing to free the Israelites, then the Egyptians should have taken steps to release the Israelites from servitude on their own.

All too often when things go wrong in our lives, we immediately thrust all of the blame onto external factors and refuse to consider that any part of the fault might lie with us ourselves. This assumption is almost always wrong. It is interesting to note that the first half of this week’s double parshah, Acharei Mot, which contains not only service of the High Priest for Yom Kippur, but also the Torah readings for both Yom Kippur morning and afternoon, is read not around the time of Yom Kippur, but rather when Yom Kippur is half a year away. While Yom Kippur only comes once a year, the message of the day- that we must examine our deeds and determine how we can better ourselves- is something we should keep in mind all year round.

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