Acharei Mot: No Exit

There is much that the Torah leaves to our imagination. Regular students of the weekly Torah portion soon become convinced that the narratives they read each week are deliberately abbreviated, as if to encourage us to fill in the missing links on our own.

One outstanding example of such an incomplete narrative is the story of the death of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest. Just a few short weeks ago, in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 10:1-7), we read of their tragic sudden deaths. In their eager enthusiasm to draw closer to the Almighty, they brought an "alien fire" to the altar, a ritual procedure that they invented on their own and were never commanded to perform. For that they were instantly struck down and consumed by a heavenly fire.

This terrifying event occurred on a day of momentous importance during the inauguration of the holy Tabernacle. It happened in the presence of a throng of celebrants. We can assume that there were at least some eyewitnesses to the events, and we can be certain that many individuals heard about it within mere minutes.

But we know almost nothing about the reactions of those who were apprised of the tragic news that two princes in Israel, two young men who were next in line for the High Priesthood, potential leaders of the Jewish nation, were executed, cremated, by an act of God.

It is natural for most of us to empathize immediately with the father and mother of these ill-fated young men. We wonder what they felt when they first learned of their unspeakable loss. But we are left to our own devices by the text and can only imagine their reaction. All we are told is, "and Aaron was silent." Aaron's silence leaves us silent, lost in introspection, asking ourselves how we would react to such nightmarish news.

In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30), we read a bit more of the story. The opening paragraph of our parasha begins "and it came to pass after the death of Aaron's two sons…" Those words encourage us to believe that the suspense has been lifted and that we are about to learn the rest of the story. We are teased into supposing that we are about to discover the nature of the emotions that lay buried in Aaron's silence.

Alas, we are disappointed. Instead of a glimpse into Aaron's tormented soul, we are taught in elaborate detail of his newly prescribed ritual role. We read of the Temple procedures which he is to conduct on the holy Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. We soon discover, to our surprise and dismay, that Aaron is to be required to replicate his sons' behavior, the very behavior for which they were frightfully punished. They lost their lives because they sought to draw too close to the Divine, and now Aaron their father is commanded to draw close to the Almighty. Indeed, he is summoned to enter a sector so sacred that his sons dared not set foot there.

Granted, he is to enter that sacred space at one specific moment in the entire year, and only after many preparatory procedures. But nevertheless, the objective of Aaron's great mitzvah and privilege, approaching the Almighty as closely as possible, is the identical objective that his sons desperately strived for, and for which they were catastrophically punished.

We can easily suppose that we are being called upon to imagine how Aaron, in the very act of entering the Holy of Holies, would be overwhelmed by heartbreak, haunted by the image of his children who were cut down in the prime of their lives while performing the very act that he was now commanded to perform!

In what way, however, was Aaron's entrance into the innermost sanctum fundamentally different from Nadab and Abihu's attempt to approach the Most Sacred One?

The answer lies in a careful reading of the rest of the opening chapter of this week's Torah portion. For there we learn that Aaron was not only instructed to enter the Holy of Holies. He was also instructed to leave that sacred space. To use contemporary jargon, he was given an exit strategy.

Attaching an exit strategy to an intense and sublime religious experience is one of the secrets of authentic spirituality. More specifically, the exit strategy is intrinsic to the Yom Kippur experience. Aaron was instructed to enter the inner sanctum, yes. But he was also directed to depart from it and return to the far less sacred world at large. Seldom do we not enter Yom Kippur with an attitude of remorse and solemnity. But we exit Yom Kippur with the confidence that our sins have been forgiven and that we can now embark upon the forthcoming joyous Succoth days.

Nadab and Abihu, on the other hand, entered a "no exit" situation. The lesson is clear: spiritual ecstasy is wonderful. But it can never be an end in itself. It must be but a means to an end, an opportunity to become inspired with the purpose of bringing inspiration back to a mundane and imperfect world.

This was the example that Moses taught when he entered a realm even more sacred than the Holy of Holies. He ascended to the peak of Mount Sinai, and even further upwards to the very heavens on high, to the realm of the angels and the site of the divine throne of glory. But he never lost sight of his goal of returning to his people with the message he received from on high. His intent was always to descend, to ultimately reunite with the people who sought to cope with the problems of ordinary existence.

This is also the central message of Yom Kippur. It is a day of atonement and repentance, of introspection and awe. Our spirituality that day is akin to that of the angels, removed from the human body's physical requirements of food and drink. But the climax of Yom Kippur must be the image left to us by Aaron and all the subsequent high priests. That image is described by our Sages as "the yom tov of festivities that the High Priest celebrated when he exited safely from the Holy of Holies." The exit strategy from Yom Kippur is a festive and joyous meal, a return to reality, a reconnection to the ordinary, to the vulnerable, to the human. 

Our religion has its serious, even somber, occasions; we know well days of self-examination and of longer periods of time dedicated to remorse and self-criticism. We know well days, months, and even years of grief and mourning. But for all these, our religion prescribes exit strategies: forgiveness for the sinner, return for the wayward child, and consolation for the mourner.  

Nadab and Abihu were guilty of a truly fateful error. They wished to enter the spiritual state of no return. Our religion teaches us that spirituality must never be a condition of "no exit." Authentic spiritual experience must be designed to culminate with a return to the real world with song for those formerly sad and speech for those once crippled by silence.