Sacrifice and Humility

Aharei Mot By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Apr 11, 2014 / 5774 | Philosophy

The Torah reading opens with God speaking to Moses in the aftermath of the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who “drew too close to the presence of the Lord” (Lev. 16:1). Their death is both shocking and mysterious. But most immediately, as is the case in the aftermath of any trauma, we want to learn how to avoid another tragic “accident.” Accordingly, God now instructs Aaron in the etiquette of approaching the Divine Presence. Explicit direction is given to this end: “Only in this fashion will Aaron enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He will be dressed in a sacral linen tunic” (Lev. 16: 3–4). How may we understand the significance of the animals that are to be brought into the holy precinct? What is the precise message that Torah is seeking to convey?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes,

Aaron must approach God with the expression of his being conscious of the meaning of his office. He must bring a par, a bull, that is to say, he must approach God as “a worker on God’s fields in the Jewish way of life” and as a par ben bakar, a young bull of the heard, remaining eternally “young,” and not allowing habit or arrogance to dull the devotion and enthusiasm of his original dedication to service . . . In addition, it must be offered with the consciousness of a hatat, a sin offering, such that the sense is conveyed that it is not with a feeling of pride at having fulfilled one’s mission in life, but with full realization of the necessity of atonement . . . He cannot enter the holy precinct with any subjective ideals of his own. (Commentary on Leviticus, 417)

The precise meaning of biblical sacrifices is all too often lost on the modern reader. The book of Leviticus is wholly consumed with this institution, yet rarely do we think about the mechanics of the offering or how these korbanot (sacrifices) play a role in refining human nature and bringing us closer to God. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers us one intriguing perspective on Parashat Aharei Mot. The exact animals that Aaron is commanded to bring allude to the human qualities toward which Aaron, as a religious leader and as a human being, must strive. Entering God’s sacred space compels one to engage in a process of tzimtzum, diminishing one’s self. No longer may pridefulness, ego, and personal need be the focus of one’s handiwork, but rather communal devotion, youthful enthusiasm, and a keen awareness of one’s shortcomings. Only by enrobing ourselves in the latter qualities may we truly be worthy of entering God’s Presence.

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