Oz Torah: – Insights on parashat Acharei-Mot

OzTorahTorah reading: Acharei Mot


There is a link which most people don’t notice between the seder and the first sidra after Pesach. Both are centered on holiness.

19th Century Painting of the Western Wall Posted by the Ottoman Imperial Archives

The sidra of Acharei Mot describes the desecration of the sanctuary caused by the acts of the two sons of Aaron. God had told the leaders and people of Israel to sanctify (“kaddesh”) the sanctuary but Aaron’s sons thought they knew better. The same requirement, “kaddesh”, opens the procedures on seder night.

The duty in both cases is “kaddesh”, to make something holy. The difference is that one “kaddesh” – the one that deals with the sanctuary – applies to space, while the other – dealing with seder night – is concerned with time.

The twin areas of Judaism’s concern are places and occasions. Special places are set apart from the rest of the physical world. Special occasions are removed from the run of days, week and months.

But that’s not the end of our concern. The Ramban says, in the interpretation of the Chassidim, “See the holy in everything mundane”. Nothing in God’s world is incapable of bearing the banner of holiness.

We must start with holy places and holy moments, but everything else can become holy if only we will it.


The rabbis have a range of interpretations of the “strange fire” which Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought to the altar, earning them summary punishment from God.

Maybe one of their worst sins was to be untrue to their names. The older son, Nadav, has a name that means “volunteer”. From the root n-d-v, “to impel”, also found in the name Amminadav, it suggests a person whose every instinct is to offer his services.

A Nadav, however, does not do the first thing that comes into his head. He first asks himself whether his intention will be pleasing to God. Had Aaron’s son Nadav sought God’s approval, history would have been different.

The other son was Avihu, which combines the Hebrew for “father” and “he”. We can read the name in two ways, “His father is He (God)”, or “He (God) is his father”. Like Nadav, he was ruled by instinct. He wanted to do the right thing by God, but he failed to assure himself that his proposed course of action was one which his heavenly Father was likely to approve.

136 x 3

“With this shall Aaron come into the sanctuary” (Lev. 16:3). Zot, “this”, has the numerical value of 408.

The g’matria experts note that each of “tzom”, “a fast”, “kol”, “a voice (of prayer)” and “mamon”, “money” (a gift) adds up to 136. 136 x 3 = 408.

What one must bring to the service of God is self-discipline, prayer and offerings of one’s time, talents and means.


Acharei Mot carries God’s warning that we should not copy the ways of two nations which our ancestors knew well – ancient Egypt and Canaan (Lev. 18:1-5). This is part of a general admonition against “chukkat hagoy”, the ways of the heathens.

The problem was both theology and ethics. In fact the two issues were intertwined. Because they had a false theology they had false ethics, and Israel had nothing to learn from them.

It is not just an ancient historical question, because many of the cultures whom we encountered, even in modern times, were also dangerous. Not only Jews suffered from such regimes and ideologies; their own people were often victimised. Experience proved that when Jews were not safe, nobody was safe.

Sometimes Jews thought it was a counsel of prudence to make their peace with their neighbours, but it rarely worked. In Germany there were Jewish thinkers who adulated German civilisation, but it turned against them and unleashed a Holocaust that destroyed the dream of harmonious symbiosis.

What should a Jew do then when it is obvious that a nation failed to meet the standards that were second nature to Judaism?

The answer is twofold – increased dedication to Judaism and its ideals, and unremitting determination to improve the ways of the host society. Leo Baeck said that the Jew is the eternal protestant who never accepts the present situation as the best of all worlds.

One can and must be a loyal citizen of the country where one lives, but that must never be at the cost of surrendering or squashing the Jewish moral conscience with which one was born.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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