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Acharei Mot/K’doshim, Leviticus 16:1–20:27D'VAR TORAH Just Like Me, They Long(ed) to Be Close to You Billy Dreskin
In this week’s double parashah, Acharei Mot/K’doshim, there’s a one-sentence reference to the mortal sin of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who brought “alien fire” into the Mishkan, which we read about in Parashat Sh’mini two weeks ago (see Leviticus 10:1–7). Here, as an introduction to the regulations regarding the Yom Kippur offerings, we read, “The Eternal One spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal” (Leviticus 16:1). Rabbi Bamberger writes, “Probably the sentence means simply, ‘They broke the rules and were punished’ ” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 770).
But it’s difficult for me to ignore the words, “drew too close to the presence of the Eternal.” We can certainly imagine how the brothers might have done that, and why they got into such trouble for it. But I can’t help wondering what that would mean for us today. After all, Reform Judaism in the twenty-first century has become so much more of a spiritual quest. Isn’t “the presence of the Eternal” the aim of our religious strivings? What would it mean for you or me to draw “too close” to God?
Interestingly, the Hebrew doesn’t say “too close.” B’korvatam means, “in their coming close.” Does this mean Nadab and Abihu died because they sought any closeness to God? Or was it only the means they employed to achieve that moment’s particular closeness that lead to their demise?
It’s so fascinating to me that our ancestors felt there was a place (the Mishkan) where one could draw close to God. More typically, people in every age seem to think of God as being “up in heaven,” nowhere near us. And yet, isn’t God’s nearness what we long for, what we pray for?
I took a walk through the siddur, looking for prayers that ask God to come close to us. I kept in mind Moses’s request to see God’s face (Exodus 33:18–23), and how he had to hide in the cleft of the rock to survive that experience. In the daytime prayer, Ashrei, there appears a passage from Psalm 145, “Adonai is near to all who call” (Ashrei prayer, Mishkan T’filah, Elyse D. Frishman, ed. [New York: CCAR, 2007], p. 54). In the prayer, R’tzei, we find the same: “God who is near to all who call” (ibid., p. 92).Continue reading.