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Parashat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:27)

“For on this day expiation shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall be pure before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30)

Parashat Acharei Mot begins with a description of the Yom Kippur ritual for purifying the mishkan (Tabernacle).  The peak moment of the ritual was the incense ceremony, in which the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) enters the Holy of Holies, holds finely-ground spices over glowing coals, and fills the space with clouds of incense.  This incense protects the Kohen Gadol from death (Leviticus 16:14).  The Kohen Gadol needs that protection because God’s presence and power is dangerous.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760; the founder of Chassidism) understood that power and said,” It is only out of a great kindness on the part of the Almighty that one remains alive after prayer.”  This reflects an understanding of prayer as an attempt to let go of the mundane aspects of life as you release the essence of your humanity to cleave to God.  The danger, of course, is that if you let go completely, you disappear.

Now, lots of people don’t believe in prayer or in God. Still, most of us know people who “lose” themselves and disappear into their work, into a social cause, or into a relationship that turns abusive. Those are all part of normal life, yet, can consume us if we let them.

Acharei Mot ends by defining the Jewish family and distinguishes between the immediate family, defined by blood relations, and the extended clan, defined by marital relations.  This seems at odds with the earlier content of the parasha (portion). Perhaps the Torah is reminding us that the institution of the family roots us in the here and now and is a primary bulwark against mystical extremism.

Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom ,

David

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