By Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz
This week we read the double portion of Achrei Mot-Kedoshim. Parshat Achrei Mot opens by referencing the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. It proceeds to tell of the Yom Kippur service. However, we read of the death of Nadav and Avihu in Parshat Shmini a few weeks earlier. Between the story of their death and the opening of our parshah, the Torah elaborates on a number of laws including the prohibition against kohanim serving in the Beit Hamikdash while drunk, laws of kashrut and a series of laws of tumah (impurity) relating to bodily emissions and the disease of tzara’at. If Achrei Mot and the details of the Yom Kippur service are meant to follow the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, why do six chapters separate the two episodes?
A number of commentators raise this very question. Rashi explains that in performing the Yom Kippur service, Aaron and future high priests run the risk of repeating the mistake made by Nadav and Avihu when they approached God in an inappropriate manner, since this is the one time during the year when they may enter the Holy of Holies. The Torah mentions the deaths of his sons to impress on Aaron the importance and severity of the laws being discussed. Rashi gives an analogy: A generic warning given by a doctor not to eat certain foods is much less effective than when the doctor is able to point to a specific person who made the same mistake.
I would like to suggest that the exact timing of our parshah is not so crucial, as long as it happened after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. The Torah introduces the laws of Yom Kippur with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to show the impact of this tragedy on Aaron. After the tragic loss of his sons, he understood the laws of Yom Kippur differently. As the representative of the entire Jewish people on Yom Kippur, he seeks atonement for all sins that they have committed. His capacity to empathize and identify with the sins and shortcomings of others was radically enhanced after he was forced to reconcile with the sin and shortcomings of his own children. Aaron is much better able to facilitate the teshuvah (repentance) of others after he has come to terms with this tragic event in his own life and the breach it must have formed in his relationship with God.
The tragedy — and lessons learned from it — remained with Aaron his entire life. It was a transformative moment. The Torah records that the laws of Yom Kippur were given after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu to emphasize Aaron’s capacity to internalize the laws differently in light of their deaths.
While our parshah presents an extreme example, the message is clear. We cannot divorce our life experiences from how we relate to Judaism. We must internalize transformative moments in our lives in order to empathize and relate to our fellow humans.
Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz is the rabbi of Netivot Shalom.