Wednesday, April 16, 2008


You know, it would seem that exhaustion and epiphany go hand-in-hand. And in a way that makes sense: when you are so tired that you can no longer remember what you did one second earlier, you become much more aware of Hashem and your reliance on Him.

On that note, during the wee hours of the morning Monday, already experiencing that exhaustion level that only the ultimate week before Pesach can produce, I had a flash of insight about this week's parsha (Acharei). We begin with the commandment issued to Aaron after the demise of Nadav and Avihu that the Kohen Gadol should refrain from entering the Kadosh Kadoshim except on Yom Kippur. Interestingly enough, the Vilna Gaon contests this timing, and states that the Kohen Gadol can in fact enter at other times of the year if the proper sacrifices are offered prior to entering. Even more interesting though is the fact that Hashem singles out Moishe: You, Hashem states, can enter before Me at any time.

Both the machloket and the singling out of Moishe allude to the same point, namely that different relationships have different parameters. How so? In the case of the machloket, what is underscored is that the Kohen Gadol's closeness to/familiarity with Hashem is mitigated by certain parametres; in the case of the Vilna Gaon, the parametre is drawn by the need to offer sacrifices prior to entry, and in the case of the other commentators, by the inability to enter anytime except on Yom Kippur. Both consequently stress varying degrees of familiarity while simultaneously stressing that distance is maintained. Similiarly, the singling out of Moishe emphasizes the differing nature of his relationship to Hashem: there was no boundary, no parametre, as denoted by his ability to approach Hashem whenever necessary without any prerequisite activity.

Is this not the same issue we find with the forbidden relationships itemized later in the parsha? In each instance, we find a relationship wherein one may feel that the other is distanced enough away from him enough that the familiarity common to the existing relationship can take the course of sanctioned relationships. In other words, this woman is my half-sister or my step-sister, I have grown familiar towards her and love her since she is part of my "family". However, she is not my full blood relation and therefore I can treat her like any other woman. It is consequently this dance of familiarity and distance that clouds the mind and causes him to lose respect for the woman- a respect that he would remember if he maintained the proper mental distance. If he instead remembered that she is in fact both his sister and not his sister, he would in turn remember that she is the product of his non-blood relative (i.e. stepmother or stepfather). By extension, he would remember that taking their relationship along the course of "normal married" relations would be disrespectful not only to his "sister" but also their parents; by disrespecting his "sister", he is also disrespecting his step-parent and even his blood parent (since the step-parent is his blood parent's spouse).

We can therefore see the common ground between how the parsha opens and closes. In both cases, we see Hashem reminding us that while we can be close in certain relationships, such as our relationship with Him, we must also remain distanced and remember that respect is due.

At a time of year when stress levels run high, and tempers easily flare, the parsha acts as a helpful reminder that we should all retain the appropriate level of respect for all of those around us.

May everyone have a kosher and simcha-filled Pesach.

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