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The Dangers of Ecstasy

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

In this week's Torah portion, we find the instructions given to Aaron regarding the service for Yom Kippur. The service is introduced by reminding us of the death of Aaron's two sons, Nadav, and Avihu, thus drawing a connection between the service and their fateful demise.

The objective of Yom Kippur is to bring about forgiveness for the entire people:

'For on that day I will forgive you, to purify you from all your sins, in front of God you will become pure." (Leviticus 16:30)

Aside from the entire nation, special attention is given to the Sanctuary and the Kohanim, the priests:

'He [the Kohen] shall atone for the Holy Sanctuary and for the Tent of the Meeting, and for the altar, he will atone; for the Kohanim and for the entire people of the congregations, he shall atone.' (Leviticus 16:33)

Clearly, part of the service deals with improper behavior on the part of the Kohanim.

Earlier, we've been told that Aaron himself should not enter the inner sanctum at all times, only at the proper time, and in the proper sequence of worship. While Nadav and Avihu entered the Sanctuary and approached God in a moment of ecstasy, Aaron is given very specific instructions on the manner and conditions for service.

God spoke to Moses: 'Speak to your brother Aaron that he not come at all times into the Holy Sanctuary that is inside the curtain before the Ark cover that is on the Ark so that he not die, for in a cloud I shall appear on the Ark cover.' (Leviticus 16:2)

The meaning is clear - the line between service of God and self-styled service may be a thin one, but that line may be the difference between life and death.


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In order to understand this better - and with it, the service of Yom Kippur - we must draw a comparison with the actions of the sons of Aaron which led to their deaths.

The Shem MiShmuel suggested that the sin of Nadav and Avihu resulted from unbridled passion and love of God. This passion was generated by the events of the eighth day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle (see Parshat Shmini). The Talmud also tells us that this day was especially beloved for God:

It was taught, on that day there was as much joy in front of God as the day of creation of heaven and earth. (Talmud Megila 10b)

Reacting to the joy, and acting out of a feeling of ecstasy, Nadav and Avihu approached God in an improper manner and died as a result.

The seriousness and somberness of Yom Kippur stands in stark contrast to the ecstasy of Nadav and Avihu. And its message is clear. The pitfall of religious experience born of ecstasy is trying to create a relationship which is not wanted by God.

To act out of ecstasy alone is to make the experience a subjective and selfish one.

To act out of ecstasy alone is to make the experience a subjective and selfish one - one desired by the worshiper but not by the object of worship. The end result may mean that the worshipper is crossing the line between creating a god in his image instead of manifesting the image of God within himself.

This does not mean that Judaism does not recognize that a sincere act of worship can come out of ecstatic experience. Indeed it can. We all desire a joyful relationship with God, but such a relationship can only be developed from a desire to please God in the manner He has taught us He wants to be pleased.


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This is the balance between "love of God" and "fear of God" that the Sages speak of.

Only after the Yom Kippur service in which we follow God's detailed instructions, may we find ourselves relating to God through love. In days of the Temple, the Yom Kippur service concluded in a great outpouring of joy:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamiliel taught: There were not joyful days in Israel like the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur (Mishna Ta'anit 4:8)

The Sages tell of the streets of Jerusalem filled with well-wishers; the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest would not arrive home for hours after the services were complete. The greatest spectacle of celebration known as the Simchat Beit Hashoeva would follow Yom Kippur by a week.

It was said, he who never saw the Simchat Beit Hashoeva never saw joy in his life. (Mishna Sukka 5:1)

The balance between fear of God (demonstrated by strict adherence to the details of observance) and joyous celebration of the love of God is highlighted by this festival.

Another - perhaps the archetypal example - of the ecstatic expression of love for God was demonstrated by King David (Samuel II 6:16), but David also possessed a profound sense of fear of God, as the Book of Psalms bears witness.

King David possessed a profound sense of fear of God, as the Book of Psalms bears witness.

The ecstasy of Nadav and Avihu was missing this second most important balancing component. As a response to their behavior, therefore, we see the detailed instructions for the service of Yom Kippur.

The incense which they offered is replaced by the incense which Aaron is commanded to offer, and one error in the performance of this task could be fatal. The food and drink of the sons of Aaron is replaced by a day of complete abstinence from food and drink.


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Other details of the service of Yom Kippur service also take on new meaning when seen in contrast to the actions of Nadav and Avihu. The central worship of the day involved two goats - one offered in the Sanctuary, the other sent into the desert.

This practice would seem to be a response to the different types of worship - in the Sanctuary, for God, and the other that which had no place in the Sanctuary, or even among the living at all, sent to a place of desolation.

This worship is quite bizarre. Why would we take a goat simply to reject it and send it away? The law seems to teach us about the stark difference between service of God which is accepted and beloved by God versus the "scapegoat" which represents that which has been rejected by God. Yet there is more:

The two goats on Yom Kippur; the Mitzvah is for them to be identical in appearance, size, and value, the two shall be chosen together. (Mishna Yoma 6:1, Talmud 62a)

The Mishna teaches that these two goats should look identical - like twins. This seems strange. Why would the goats need to be identical, especially when their purpose is so different?

The idea of twins - twins who are opposites - is a familiar theme in the Torah. The most famous twins in the Torah are, of course, Jacob and Esau. They were complete opposites, one good, the other evil. No one could ever confuse them. On the other hand, perhaps they did possess some similarities. Rashi tells us that until the age of thirteen they were indistinguishable (Rashi, Bereishet 25:27), as does the Midrash:

Esau was worthy to be called Jacob and Jacob was worthy to be called Esau. (Midrash Zuta Shir HaShirim 1:15)

They were so similar that at times their similarity caused confusion. One dressed as the other, one spoke like the other.

Isn't it strange that the Divine plan required twins? Perhaps just being siblings would have been enough? Evidently the Torah wanted these two, Jacob and Esau, to be almost the same. Perhaps their similarity represents the thin line between acceptable behavior and idolatry, between good an evil.

The idea of the twin goats is intrinsically related to the personalities of the twins, Jacob and Esau.

Rav Yitzchak Hutner noted this parallel, and suggested that when things look alike from the exterior, it is a sign that one must look within - at the essence - in order to discern the difference (see Pachad Yitzchak, Purim, p.43).

The idea of the two goats is intrinsically related to the personalities of Jacob and Esau, identical on the outside but so different in terms of their essence. The reason that we need to offer the second goat - the scapegoat - is that so often we find ourselves dressing up like Esau instead of behaving like the Jacob/Israel we are.

The origin of the two goats themselves may very well be found in that famous episode when Jacob is persuaded by his mother to dress up like his brother. Rebecca instructs him:

'Go now to the herd and bring me two good goats...' (Genesis 27:9)

The Midrash expands on this idea:

How do we know that it was in the merit of Jacob [that we take the two goats]? These are the goats that his mother referred to 'Go now to the herd and bring me two good goats...' Why are they called "good"?

Rabbi Brechia said in the name of Rabbi Chelbo: "They are good for you and good for your children. They are good for you when you enter, and take the blessings from your father, and they are good for your children, when they soil themselves in sin all year round. Then they will bring these two goats, and offer them and be cleansed." (Pesikta Rabbati section 47)

Jacob's entrance to his father may be paralleled with the once-yearly entrance of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, into the Holy of Holies. Jacob prepared for this appearance with the two goats, as his descendents would in the future.


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While we may now understand the symbolism of the two goats, we have not gained any insight into why the goat sent into the wilderness was called a goat "for Azazel."

Rabbi Menachem Azarya DeFano, in his work "Sefat Emet," explains that the name Azazel is an acronym for ze le'umat ze asa Elokim, "God has made one as well as the other," a verse in Ecclesiastes:

In the day of prosperity be joyful, in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other. (Ecclesiastes 7:14)

According to Rabbi DeFano, the contrast between and evil, with the recognition that both emanate from God, is encapsulated by this verse. In explaining further, the Midrash makes a link that God made both Jacob and Esau (see Pesikta D'Rav Kahana Chapter 28).

It is fascinating that the quintessential example brought to illustrate that both righteousness and evil are from God is none other than the case of Jacob and Esau. We understand from this that, in a sense, good needs evil in order to exist, if for no other reason than to have something to reject. It is the contrast with evil which allows good to shine.

Problems arise when man adopts the ways of evil, identifying with them instead of rejecting them.

Problems arise when man adopts the ways of evil, identifying with them instead of rejecting them. This path is a rejection of God and the image of God within us, as is illustrated by another detail of the Yom Kippur service.

Lots were drawn to determine which of the two identical goats will be sacrificed in the Sanctuary and which will be for Azazel.

The idea of drawing lots is apparently a concession to the "random" element of human existence. And yet this attitude that life is randomly determined, rather than orchestrated by God, is considered evil and associated with the nation of Amalek, whom Israel was commanded to obliterate from the face of the earth.

'Remember what was done to you by Amalek on the way as you left Egypt. When they happened upon you...' (Deut. 25:17-18)

Rashi explains "they happened upon you" as "by coincidence." In his brief comment, we can discern the difference between Judaism and the philosophy of Amalek. We believe in a God who is involved in history, while for Amalek life is no more than a series of coincidences. Haman, one of the most famous descendants of Amalek, used lots to determine the best day to attack and destroy the Jews. The Jews, in response, turned to God and put their faith in His involvement in history (and were saved). Similarly, Moses lifted his hands heavenward in prayer while the battle against Amalek raged around him, signaling to the Jews that faith in God is the only ammunition against Amalek.

When the Jew has sinned and has begun to act like Esau, forgetting God who is constantly involved in history, God invites him to enter the Sanctuary, represented by the Kohen Gadol.

The lots force us to examine our behavior and the underlying philosophy of chance or coincidence.

The drawing of the lots forces us to examine our behavior and the underlying philosophy of chance or coincidence. The breeding ground for sin is in this forgetfulness. Therefore, on Yom Kippur, nothing can be forgotten, every detail is important.

Every detail is recognition of God's involvement in our lives. The day is filled with awe and fear, a fear which can only spring from the understanding that God is intimately involved in our lives. This fear, in turn, gives birth to the joy which can only spring from the understanding that the same God whom we fear is the God of forgiveness and unlimited love.

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