Tehilla Helfenbaum is a graduate of Midreshet Amudim and studies philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Acharei Mot, one of the two parashot that are read this week, opens by mentioning the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Their deaths in Parashat Shmini taught us that there are grave consequences for approaching God through improper service. Following this tragic episode, I would imagine that there is some fear surrounding closeness to God. It is even possible that there are now some regrets following the excitement of God agreeing to live in the midst of the people. A near and almost tangible God comes with some real dangers.
Following this tense episode, God delivers a message to Aharon (Vayikra 16:2):
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִיךָ֒ וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכָל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ מִבֵּ֖ית לַפָּרֹ֑כֶת אֶל־פְּנֵ֨י הַכַּפֹּ֜רֶת אֲשֶׁ֤ר עַל־הָאָרֹן֙ וְלֹ֣א יָמ֔וּת כִּ֚י בֶּֽעָנָ֔ן אֵרָאֶ֖ה עַל־הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃
The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.
God tells Aharon that the Shrine, or the Holy of Holies, is off limits. God resides there in a cloud, and crossing that boundary to encounter God guarantees death.
There is, however, an exception. Aharon may enter the Holy of Holies by the means of a special ceremony belonging to the Yom Kippur service.
As part of the Yom Kippur service, in preparation for entering the Holy of Holies, the High Priest prepares the incense to bring behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies (Vayikra 16:12-13):
מְלֹֽא־הַ֠מַּחְתָּה גַּֽחֲלֵי־אֵ֞שׁ מֵעַ֤ל הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ מִלִּפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה
וּמְלֹ֣א חָפְנָ֔יו קְטֹ֥רֶת סַמִּ֖ים דַּקָּ֑ה וְהֵבִ֖יא מִבֵּ֥ית לַפָּרֹֽכֶת׃
וְנָתַ֧ן אֶֽת־הַקְּטֹ֛רֶת עַל־הָאֵ֖שׁ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְכִסָּ֣ה ׀ עֲנַ֣ן הַקְּטֹ֗רֶת אֶת־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־הָעֵד֖וּת וְלֹ֥א יָמֽוּת׃
And he shall take a panful of glowing coals scooped from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of finely ground aromatic incense, and bring this behind the curtain.
He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, lest he die.
This verse reminds us of the one we saw earlier: both mention a cloud that is over the cover. The first verse tells us why Aharon cannot enter the Holy of Holies, and this one tells how he can. Both mention a cloud.
Rashi in his comment on
the first verse develops this parallel midrashically:
כי בענן אראה. כִּי תָמִיד אֲנִי נִרְאֶה שָׁם עִם עַמּוּד עֲנָנִי, וּלְפִי שֶׁגִּלּוּי שְׁכִינָתִי שָׁם, יִזָּהֵר שֶׁלֹּא יַרְגִּיל לָבֹא, זֶהוּ פְשׁוּטוֹ; וּמִדְרָשׁוֹ: לֹא יָבֹא כִּי אִם בַּעֲנַן הַקְּטֹרֶת בְּיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים (יומא נ”ג
for I appear in the cloud means, for I constantly show Myself there with My pillar of cloud, and because the revelation of My Shechinah takes place there, he should take care not to make it his habit to come there. This is the literal meaning of the verse. The Halachic explanation is: He shall not come into the Holy of Holies except with (i.e. on the occasion when he is going to raise) a cloud of incense on the Day of Atonement (Yoma 53a). (Sefaria’s Rashi translation)
When God says “for I appear in the cloud,” the simple understanding of the verse is that Aharon should not enter since God’s presence is seen in a cloud. However, Rashi adds that the rabbis learn that God may only be seen through the cloud that Aharon must create to enter the Holy of Holies. Although the later verse (16:13) says this explicitly, Rashi (and the talmudic rabbis he quotes) read that into the earlier verse.
Because we have a later verse that explicitly says that Aharon brings a cloud of incense, there’s no need to read it into the first verse. Why not let the first verse talk about the cloud of God and the later verse talk about the incense cloud? This Rashi caught me off guard not only because of this redundancy introduced by its second interpretation, but also because the second midrashic interpretation—that the “cloud” refers to the cloud that allows Aharon to enter—is almost the direct opposite of the first peshat interpretation, in which the “cloud” is the cloud that prevents him from entering.
So what is the purpose of linking Aharon’s cloud to God’s cloud? Rashi emphasizes the special role of the incense cloud, amongst all the other Yom Kippur rituals, that allows Aharon to approach God. What makes Aharon’s cloud special?
The temple is God’s home. God is, in a sense, closer to the people than he has ever been. However, there are limits. God is not a free-for-all, and Nadav and Avihu with their “foreign fire” learned that the hard way.
The Kohanim who work hard to maintain the home and keep it operating come closest to breaching this gap between man and God, making a connection concretized through Temple worship. God may seem intimidating, but He wants us to approach him through ritual. The Kohanim are the messengers that enable that connection.
Using Rashi’s interpretation, the closest anyone in the Temple (except Moshe) comes to approaching God is with Aharon’s cloud, the cloud that mirrors God’s ever present pillar of cloud.
Temple worship often seems jarring and unintuitive. Intricate procedures of animal sacrifices and sanctification can lead us down long roads of details that can be hard to understand. The symbol of Aharon’s cloud represents a simple yet powerful message. Elaborate building instructions and intense, laborious physical offerings allow us to build God a home. But it is a humbled and emotional act of imitatio dei—imitating God—that brings Aharon and the Jewish people closest to Him.
As a people in exile, incorporeal worship of God can leave us longing for closeness. Although the Yom Kippur procedure in this week’s parasha may seem to be filled with complicated rituals that are impossible to reproduce today, approaching God in His indicated ways is available to us all.
Aharon is not imitating God in order to challenge him or appear powerful. He is using the special occasion and the people that he represents to carve a path forward to God, possibly even covering up God’s cloud with his own so that his barrier to God is temporarily not there.
I would like to learn from the humble yet bold ritual of the incense cloud that God, as intimidating as he may be, desires our closeness. Barriers of fear and uncertainty—none more challenging than the death of Aharon’s sons in God’s inner sanctuary—can keep us from approaching God, but they can be overcome. We approach God not through theatrics or dramatic action, but with humility and reverence. God asks us to come to him and attempt to close the gap between us and him. Let us follow the mitzvah of emulating God and realize the immense potential for relationship that it brings.