Too Close for Comfort

April 26, 2015

6 min read


Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

On the importance of boundaries.

This week's Parsha begins with the tragic deaths of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu.

The Torah says that "fire consumed them" (Leviticus 10:2), and then says they were removed from the camp with their clothes still intact (10:5). How did their clothes survive a fire that killed them? Rashi explains: They were electrocuted by two lightning bolts which shot out from the Holy of Holies and split through their nostrils.

To suffer such a fate, they must have done something really really awful. What was it?

After waiting months for the inauguration of the Tabernacle, Nadav and Avihu were so anxious to get close to God that they took incense-pans and rushed headlong into the Holy of Holies.

The problem is that the Holy of Holies is an environment which only tolerates entry on one day of the year – Yom Kippur, and by one person – the Kohen Gadol (high priest).

In the pure spiritual center of the Tabernacle, Nadav and Avihu had entered an environment for which their wiring could not sustain – and they vaporized.

The Torah calls Nadav and Avihu "those close to me" (Leviticus 10:3). They had positive intentions – to get close, to unite, to connect. Of course God wants closeness. But there are appropriate boundaries. Nadav and Avihu crossed the line ... and were subsumed.

For the Sake of Others

This incident teaches the need for fences and boundaries in our own relationships. Because there's a fine line between the desire to get close, and something unhealthy.

The Talmud makes the following intriguing statement: "Even more than the baby calf wants to drink, the mother wants to nurse." The simple explanation is that of course the calf is hungry and needs to eat, but even more so the mother is full of milk and needs to get it out.

I heard in the name of Rabbi Simcha Wasserman that this teaching must be understood differently. Because if the mother's only concern was to get rid of her milk, then it would come out in one big gush. And we see instead that it comes out precisely in the right proportion to satisfy the specific needs of the calf. So when the Talmud says, "More than the baby calf wants to drink, the mother wants to nurse," it is saying that even more than the calf desires to eat, the mother wants it to eat – not for the mother's sake, but because that's what's best for the calf!

That's what a good relationship is all about: close, giving, concerned. But not over-bearing. Not smothering. The Kabbalists explain this by way of metaphor: If my candle is lit, and another's is not, then it is a great kindness to use my candle to light the other. But then once the second candle is lit, the real kindness is to back off, to take my candle away and let the other candle burn on its own.

The role of parenting (or any education) is to bring the student to a point of independence. Thus Maimonides writes that the highest level of charity is to create financial independence – by giving a gift, a loan, or a job.

The dependent relationship is an unhealthy one; it is "too close for comfort."

Open Door Policy

The Talmud (Avot 5:13) describes different people by the way they share their possessions. One type has a completely open policy with others, saying "What's mine is yours, and what's yours is mine."

The Talmud says this person is an ignoramus.

Why? Because this set-up is chaos. Yours, mine. Nobody has anything at all.

Let's say a person wants to make their home an "Open House" where anyone is free to come and go as they please. Sounds great? Not really, because that person has no basis to give anymore. If you invite me, then it's meaningless – since anyone can come it's not really your house, and it's not me you're inviting!

There is no distance, no boundaries between individuals. Is it any wonder that Communism failed.

Splitting a Piece

In describing God's Covenant with the Jewish people, the Torah uses the expression, "Karet Brit" (see Exodus 34:10, Deut. 29:13). The literal meaning – "to cut a covenant" – is an oxymoron. "Cut" implies a separation, whereas covenant implies a joining together!

The Maharal explains that the way to get close to someone is not to give up everything, but rather to "cut" from yourself a special part, and share it with the other person. That way, you will always want to stay close to that person, because they share such an intimate part of you. Yet at the same time you preserve your own individuality.

It's all a matter of knowing where to set the boundary. If we place boundaries wisely, we can achieve proper closeness with everyone. We may find it appropriate to confide with a colleague about personal finances, talk to the rabbi about religion, and a neighbor about politics. But unrestrained closeness with everyone is a recipe for personal diaster.

This applies to physical intimacy also. We must set boundaries clearly and objectively, so that in the heat of passion we don't cross an unhealthy boundary. This is one reason why the Torah speaks against promiscuity, or even against "social hugging" between members of the opposite sex. Because if I'm doing it with everyone, then what's left for my spouse?!

The Jewish Test

Before God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai, He commanded Moses to set up a boundary around the mountain, lest the people come too close. This instruction is so important that it is repeated in Exodus 19:12, 19:21 and 19:24.

"Getting too close" has been a Jewish test throughout the ages. We have such drive and desire to reach out, to fix the world, to bring peace and to usher in the Messianic era. With this intensity, we sometimes rush in with the right intentions – but in the wrong direction.

Success in life is dependent on knowing where we're headed and how far to go. Our drives have to be harnessed in the proper amount, and in the right place and time. Perhaps this is the reason that Jerusalem – the holiest of all Jewish sites – is a "walled" city.

Ignoring this was the fatal mistake of Nadav and Avihu.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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