Torah Reading — 29 Nisan 5779 — 4 May 2019

Categories: Weekly Torah Reading

Achrei Mot: Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30

אחרי מות

It all adds up

A major portion of this week’s sidra recurs in the Torah readings on Yom Kippur morning and afternoon since it describes the atonement procedure in the Temple in ancient days.

A second link with the High Holydays comes with a piece of rabbinic mathematics. The solemn Un’tanneh Tokef concludes with the proclamation of the three principles of atonement – t’shuvah, t’fillah and t’zdakah, penitence, prayer and charity.

In some Machzorim three other Hebrew words appear in small print above these three principles. The additional words are tzom, kol and mamon – “fasting”, “voice” (i.e. prayer) and “money”. Each of these three words has the same numerical value according to gematria – 136. Three times 136 is 408.

A rabbinic work entitled Tzemach Tzaddik points to the verse in the sidra, B’zot yavo Aharon el hakodesh – “With this shall Aaron enter the sanctuary” (Lev. 16:3). The numerical value of zot, “this”, is 408.

The lesson we learn from this calculation is that a high priest, or for that matter a religious leader of any kind, has no automatic claim on God’s favours. Just because a person is a high priest does not of itself dispose the Almighty towards him.

His acts of office have to be accompanied in his personal life by the appropriate attitudes of humility, reverence for God and blameless living.

The strange fire of Aaron’s sons

Nadab and Abihu destroyed by fire, by Matthäus Merian, c. 1625

Aaron’s sons were struck dead because they brought “strange fire” to the altar.

Most people read the story to the discredit of the two sons but there is a way of explaining it in a positive sense – they didn’t wish to defy God but they wanted to show their love for Him.

This is what is implied in an old Targum that says they were so suffused with love of God that they brought an additional sacrifice to the altar.

Their sin was to imply that there was something lacking in the Torah, that the Torah did not go far enough when it prescribed the way in which one should serve the Creator.

Being Aaron’s sons, public figures, leadership figures, they should not have given the impression that theirs was a valid example for people to follow.

In our generation there are people who undertake extra stringencies but they should never let themselves be perceived as better or holier than the rest of us.

The Torah doesn’t say that any Jew should seem to be showing off how really froom they are, implying that the regular pattern of Torah Judaism has something missing.


kadeshThere is a link which most people don’t notice between the seder and the first sidra after Pesach. Both are centered on holiness.

The sidra of Acharei Mot describes the desecration of the sanctuary caused by the acts of the two sons of Aaron. God had told the leaders and people of Israel to sanctify (kaddesh) the sanctuary but Aaron’s sons thought they knew better.

The same requirement, kaddesh, opens the procedures on seder night.

The duty in both cases is kaddesh, to make something holy.

The difference is that one kaddesh – the one that deals with the sanctuary – applies to space, while the other – dealing with seder night – is concerned with time.

The twin areas of Judaism’s concern are places and occasions. Special places are set apart from the rest of the physical world. Special occasions are removed from the run of days, week and months.

But that’s not the end of our concern. The Ramban says, in the interpretation of the Chassidim, “See the holy in everything mundane”. Nothing in God’s world is incapable of bearing the banner of holiness.

We must start with holy places and holy moments, but everything else can become holy if only we will it.


Shabbat Shalom

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by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD