Acharey Mot


And Hashem said to Moshe, "Tell Ahron your brother that he should not enter at all times the inner sanctuary that is beyond the curtain – in front of the ark covering that is upon the ark.  And he will not die.  For I appear in a cloud upon the ark covering. " (VaYikra 16:2)

This pasuk is the source for a specific mitzvah.  Maimonides discusses this commandment in his Mishne Torah.  He explains that in is prohibited for the Kohen Gadol to enter the inner sanctuary of the Mishcan or Bait HaMikdash on any occasion other than Yom HaKippurim.  This same commandment limits the access of all Kohanim to the Temple when not performing services.


This is the meaning of our passage.  Moshe is to inform Ahron of this prohibition.  He is not to enter the inner sanctuary – the Kodesh HaKedoshim.  Only on Yom HaKippurim can he enter this area of the Temple.  Similarly, the Kohanim cannot enter the Mishcan when not performing services.


The pasuk also discusses the reason for this prohibition.  It explains that the cloud representing the presence of the Almighty appears over the Ark Cover.  This part of the passage requires explanation.  How does the presence of this cloud explain the prohibition? 


The commentaries offer various interpretations of this portion of the pasuk.  Gershonides offers more than one possibility.  One of his explanations relates the prohibition to another commandment.  The Torah commands us to assume an attitude of awe towards the Temple.[1]  This commandment requires that we appreciate the sanctity of the Mishcan.   Our awe should result from this understanding.


Gershonides explains that the limitation placed upon access to the Temple is required to reinforce this sense of awe.  The relationship between these limitations and the required awe is based upon a simple psychological principle.  Familiarity and awe cannot coexist.  If access were not limited, the Kohen Gadol and the other Kohanim would become familiar with the Tabernacle or the Temple.  Once they were accustomed to entering all areas of the Mishcan at any time their sanctity would not seem as awesome.[2] 


When one first sees a beautiful work of art the observer is moved by the perfection of the piece.  However, imagine the observer could gaze upon the artwork at any time.  The observer would become familiar with the work.  With time, its beauty would become less moving.  The work of art does not change.  Familiarity detracts from its impact.


This same phenomenon applies to the Mishcan.  Access is limited, in order to protect the awesome impression created by the sanctity of the Temple.


We can now understand the pasuk's mention of the cloud.  The sanctity of the Mishcan is a consequence of the presence of the Divine influence.  This Divine "presence" is represented by the cloud.  The message of the passage is clear.  Ahron's access is restricted.  This is because the presence of the cloud demands that the Mishcan be held in awe.  This awe cannot coexist with familiarity.

He should wear a sanctified white linen tunic and have white linen pants on his flesh.  And he should gird himself with a linen sash and wrap himself with a linen turban.  They are sacred vestments.  And he should immerse himself in water and dress in them.  (VaYikra 16:4)

The Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur enters the inner sanctuary of the Temple.  He does not wear his usual golden vestments.  Instead he wears simple white linen garments.


Rav Yehudah Loew – Maharal of Prague – explained that there is a special symbolism to these white linen garments.  He comments that white is not a color.  It is the absence of color.  Rather than regarding the linen garments as white, they should be viewed as lacking any color.  This total lack of color is symbolic of the kindness of Hashem. [3]


It is difficult for a human being to perform an act of absolute kindness.  We are often motivated by hidden objectives.  We try to be altruistic.  But we may be guided by motives that are not obvious to us.  Perhaps, we hope to receive a kindness in return.  It is possible we wish to be noted and praised for our charity.  Our kindness is “colored” by the presence of these inner motives.


In contrast, the kindness of the Almighty is pure.  The Creator is above all need and desire.  There can be no hidden motive or selfish objective.  His kindness is not “colored” by any impurity.  The colorless vestments of the High Priest represent the purity of the Almighty’s kindness.


The Kohen Gadol enters the inner sanctuary to atone and pray for Bnai Yisrael.  His thoughts must required to be appropriate for the task.  He cannot imagine the Almighty as similar to a human king.  The benevolence of the human king is not perfect kindness.  It is fused with personal motivation.  The Kohen Gadol  is expected to appreciate the unique character of Hashem’s kindness.  It is an expression of G-d’s very essence.  The Kohen Gadol is reminded of this concept through his special colorless garments.


And from the congregation of Bnai Yisrael he should take two goats for sin offerings and one ram for an olah sacrifice.  (VaYikra 16:5)

Two identical rams aree chosen for the Yom Kippur service.  One is burned upon the altar as a sin offering.  The second is also a sin offering.  However it is unique.  The Kohen Gadol places his hands upon the head of this second goat.  He confesses the sins of all of Bnai Yisrael.  Then this sin offering is delivered to a waiting escort.  The escort leads the goat into the wilderness.  There he pushes the goat over a steep cliff.  This second goat is referred to as the Azazel offering.


How are the fates of these two identical goats determined?  Which will be burned upon the altar?   Which will be the Azazel?  This is determined through lottery.


The commentaries discuss the message of the Azazel.  They provide various interpretations of the symbolism of the offering.  Most of these interpretations are based upon a thorough understanding of Torah.  The scholar, observing the offering of the Azazel, would be reminded of these important concepts.  However, the sacrifice is also designed to provide a forceful lesson to the simple, less educated observer.  What is this message?


The Torah maintains that every individual has the ability to chose between good and evil.  We are not forced to sin by a predisposition or our environment.  Righteous behavior is also a consequence of exercising free choice.  We are in control and responsible for our behavior.  This phenomenon is symbolized by the lottery.  Both goats are identical.  Each is capable of serving as the Azazel or as the offering for the altar.


One goat is offered upon the altar.  It represents one of our choices.  We can choose a life of righteousness.  This is a life devoted to Hashem.  The other goat is associated with evil.  The sins of the entire nation are confessed upon this goat.


The goats meet very different fates.  One is destined for the altar.  The second is sent into the wilderness.  The choice to follow the base instincts is a decision to travel into a wilderness.  This shallow existence may tempt us with temporary pleasure.  But in the end it will lead to our destruction.  Like the Azazel, we will be propelled over a steep cliff into oblivion.


What is the message of the escort?  The choice to follow evil is based upon a fantasy.  The sinner realizes that others have previously embarked down this path.  This individual may be aware of the misery that awaited these people.  They did not find happiness.  The instinctual life was found to be meaningless.  But each sinner feels that his or her fate will be different.  Somehow the base instinctual life can be pursued with a different and better outcome.  This is the message of the escort.  When the path of evil is chosen the outcome is predetermined.  The escort is waiting.  There will be no escape.  Only wilderness and an abyss await.


For on this day you will have your sins atoned so that you will be cleansed.  Before Hashem you will be cleansed from all your sins.  (VaYikra  16:30)

Parshat Acharey Mot discusses the Temple service of Yom HaKippurim.  Our passage explains that the observance of Yom HaKippurim atones for the sins of the people.  The Talmud explains that Yom HaKippurim cannot atone for all sins.  Sins that a person commits towards another individual are not nullified by Yom HaKippurim.  The sinner must appease the victim of the sin.  For instance, assume one spreads gossip about an individual.  The service of Yom HaKippurim, observance of the fast and fervent prayer cannot atone for this sin.  The sinner must seek the forgiveness of the victim.


This law is derived from our passage.  The passage states that Yom HaKippurim atones for a person’s sin that are before Hashem.  The Sages understand the term “before Hashem” as defining a class of sins.  Sins that are before Hashem – committed against the Almighty – are eradicated by Yom HaKippurim.  Sins that are before other individuals – committed against other people – are not erased by Yom HaKippurim.  The sinner must first appeal to the injured person.[4]


The Talmud also explains that a person who insults another individual must seek forgiveness.  This follows from the lesson derived from our passage.  The insult constitutes a sin against another individual.  It follows that the sinner must seek the forgiveness of the insulted person.  However, the Talmud does not quote our passage to support this law.  Instead, the Talmud cites a pasuk from Mishle to support its ruling.[5]  This raises an obvious question. Why does the Talmud not rely on our passage?


Rav Chaim Soloveitchik Ztl provided an interesting answer to this question.  He offered his response in the context of a personal experience.  Rav Chaim had ruled against a butcher in a monetary dispute.  The butcher felt that Rav Chaim’s ruling was flawed and became very angry.  In his fury, he called Rav Chaim a thief.  Rav Chaim tried to calm the litigant.  He was unsuccessful and the butcher continued to ridicule him.  Finally, Rav Chaim told the butcher that he was insolent and ejected him from the court.


On the eve of Yom HaKippurim Rav Chaim sought out this butcher.  He appealed to the butcher to forgive him.  He had insulted the butcher by calling him “insolent.”  Not only did the butcher refuse to forgive Rav Chaim, he renewed his insults.  He, again, accused Rav Chaim of incompetence and theft.


Rav Chaim explained to the butcher that he was not apologizing for any wrong he had committed.  The butcher had acted disrespectfully.  He deserved to be accused of insolence.  He had not sinned against the butcher.  Instead, he was appealing to the butcher for an entirely different reason.  The observance of Yom HaKippurim requires that we reestablish fellowship within the community.  Rav Chaim was not seeking forgiveness of a sin. He was seeking to renew the fraternity of the community.


Rav Chaim explained that this is the reason the Talmud provides a special passage for its ruling regarding insults.  There are two possible reasons for appeasing a person we have insulted.  First, if the insult is unjustified, we have sinned against this person.  We cannot atone for this sin without attempting to appease the insulted person.  This rule is derived from our passage.


Second, the observance of Yom HaKippurim requires that we reestablish peace within the community.  This can only be accomplished through seeking the forgiveness of those we have insulted or hurt.  In this context, the justification for the insult is irrelevant.  Even a completely justified insult causes animosity. This obligation is not derived from our passage.  It requires a separate source.


The Talmud, tells us we must seek to appease one we have insulted.  This ruling is not referring to a sinful, unjustified insult.  Instead, the Talmud is dealing with well-deserved scorn.  Even in such cases, the observance of Yom HaKippurim demands that we appease the insulted individual.  This lesson is not derived from our passage.  Our pasuk only discusses sinful behavior.  Therefore, the Talmud relies on a passage from Mishle to support its ruling. 


Rav Chaim pointed out that this interpretation of the Talmud is supported by a ruling of the Shulchan Aruch.  The Shulchan Aruch indicates that we are required to appease our neighbors on the eve of Yom HaKippurim.[6] Rav Chaim explained that this obligation is an expression of the requirement to establish peace within the community.[7]


No person shall approach a close relative to commit a sexual offense.  I am Hashem.  (VaYikra 18:6)

The Torah prohibits sexual relations with various relatives.  These prohibitions are outlined in our parasha.  In addition to these prohibitions, the Torah legislates against approaching a close relative to commit these violations.  What is the meaning of this injunction?


Maimonides explains that this command prohibits lesser forms of affectionate contact.  This includes even kissing and embrace.[8]  In general, this injunction legislates against even a friendly kiss or embrace shared between close relatives.


This command is often maligned.  To many individuals it seems somewhat severe and even prudish.  What harm can occur from an affectionate embrace?  The perceived severity of the command often leads to its neglect.


Unfortunately, this criticism stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the command.  In fact, the mitzvah reflects a profound appreciation of human nature and psychology.


Human sexuality is based upon a very strong instinctual drive.  This drive can be overpowering.  It can overcome social restraint and even psychological taboo.  This phenomenon creates a significant difficulty from a legal perspective.


All mitzvot are given with the obvious expectation of observance.  It is meaningless and foolish to legislate against a behavior that cannot be controlled.  The Torah is designed to provide a practical guide to life.  Every command is designed to be observed in practice!  This can create a paradox.  How can the Torah legislate against succumbing to a basic drive?  This problem becomes obvious when dealing with sexuality.  The Torah prohibits various forms of inappropriate sexual behavior.  Yet, the strength of sexual drive cannot be denied.


Consider an example.  Imagine two individuals deeply in love.  The relationship is advanced and involves a strong sexual element.  These lovers find themselves deeply infatuated within a romantic relationship.  They may not be able to control their feelings towards one another.  A lone prohibition against sexual relations may prove ineffectual.


The Torah recognizes this paradox.  Therefore, it prohibits the activities that function as the normal precursors to more advanced sexual relations.  This is not because the Torah is prudish.  The Torah does not assume that a friendly hug will inevitably result in a sexual encounter.  However, the Torah does assume that sexual relations are not initiated in a vacuum.  They emerge from more benign behaviors.  The sexual relations represent the consummation of process that begins more innocently.


In order to prevent sexual relations, the Torah wisely begins with prohibitions directed towards these more benign behaviors.  These behaviors can be more easily controlled.  Through this control, the path to more advanced sexual encounters is blocked.




[1]   Sefer VaYikra 19:30.

[2]    Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook), p 11.

[3]  Haggadah of Pesach –  Migdal Eder HaChadash, p 5b.

[4]   Mesechet Yoma 85b.

[5]    Mesechet Yoma  87a.

[6]    Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 606:1.

[7]    Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, Perech Mateh Ahron, volume 1, p 186.

[8]  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 353.