12 Kislev 5781 / Saturday, November 28, 2020 | Torah Reading: Vayeitzei
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Acharei Mot: Refining and Elevating    

Acharei Mot: Refining and Elevating

Had Nadav and Avihu refined their spiritual sense even more, the Torah is telling us - like so many others before them - their mistake could have been avoided…


Parshat Acharei Mot
G-d spoke to Moses after the death of Aharon's two sons, who had brought an [unauthorized] offering before G-d and died. G-d told Moses, "Speak to your brother Aharon, and let him not enter at just any time the [Inner] Sanctuary beyond the partition concealing the Ark, so that he may not die, since I appear over the Ark cover in a cloud..." (VaYikrah 16:1)
Parashas Acharei Mot begins with a somewhat detailed description of the Yom Kippur service, as performed in the Mishkan and Temple times. As to why the Torah was compelled to link Yom Kippur to the death of Aharon's sons, there are a number of reasons. Rashi cites the Mott obvious one: Nadav and Avihu died because they had entered the very same area without G-d's permission, and the mention of their deaths emphasizes the danger of doing so.
Another explanation is that the death of a tzaddik atones for the generation (Moed Katan 28a), just as Yom Kippur itself does. It could be that the death of a single tzaddik could replace the need to destroy countless individuals.
A less obvious explanation emerges out of the general theme of the entire book of VaYikrah, and is alluded to by the Yom Kippur service:
"He shall take burning coals from off the altar before G-d, and his hands full of finely-beaten aromatic incense, and bring [them both] into the [Inner] Sanctuary beyond the cloth partition. (VaYikrah 16:12)
The incense referred to is the same as mentioned in the following Talmudic statement (and also read each morning as part of the Morning Service):
The rabbis taught: How is the incense mixture formulated? Three hundred and sixty-eight maneh... from which the Kohen Gadol would bring both his handfuls on Yom Kippur. He would return them to the mortar on the day before Yom Kippur, and grind them very thoroughly so that it would be exceptionally fine ... (Krisos 6a)
The incense used on Yom Kippur was not a different mixture of spices, specially formulated for Yom Kippur, as one might have thought. It was, in fact, the exact same mixture of spices used for the Incense-Offering all year round, with one exception: it was ground extra fine; Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, required "extra fine" ketoret (incense).
Ketoret represents many things, but specifically something called "Da'as," which literally translate as "knowledge," but specifically alludes to a deeper, more spiritual understanding of the way G-d runs His world. In other words, there is da'as, and then there is Da'as, and Ketoret represented the latter. It is this level of knowledge to which Shlomo HaMelech, the person known for his high level of wisdom, referred:
If you seek it like money and pursue it like hidden treasures, then you will understand fear of G-d, and you will find Da'as Elokim (the knowledge of G-d). (Mishlei 2:4)
It had been an Incense-Offering that Nadav and Avihu had brought without authorization.
What role does the grinding play in all of this? One not unlike the role grinding plays in the production of flour from wheat:
If there is no flour, then there is no Torah ... (Pirke Avos 3:21)
Flour comes from grinding wheat, which the Ultimate Wisdom made for this purpose. Through this, man is distinguished from the rest of the animals, as the Talmud states (Pesachim 118a): At the time The Holy One, Blessed is He, told Adam, "It will bring forth thorns and thistles ... " tears formed in his eyes. He said before Him, "Master of the Universe! Will I and my donkey eat from the same trough?!" What this means is that, had it not been that his food was ground finely, he would not have been able to achieve the completion of Torah (i.e., receive Torah at Mt. Sinai 26 generations later) ... (Meiri, Commentary on Pirke Avos, 3:21)
Wheat is coarse and barely food, fit primarily for animal consumption. However, by grinding wheat into flour, the wheat becomes refined and elevated to the level of food fit for humans, though it is barely edible to animals. What the Meiri is pointing out is this process is representative of a similar process in the world of ideas, one that transforms "coarse" ideas into refined ones, spiritually "coarse" individuals into godly ones.
What this means is that, like food, ideas rarely come "ready-to-eat." They must undergo a process that reveals the hidden "kernel" of truth within, the main staple of an intellectually-honest diet. In life, and especially in the realm of the intellect, very little is as it appears on the surface; truth is what emerges after "raw" truth has been ground down to its essence, a procedure known as the Talmudic process (see, "Redemption to Redemption," Part Two: Pesach, Chapter Two: The Centrality of Speech, on the Project Genesis Website).
Every day of the year ground incense was used, because all year round Da'as must be ground and refined. However, on Yom Kippur, we use finely ground Ketoret/Da'as, because this is the one time of year we seek perfect atonement, and above all, kedusha (holiness). And, as the Torah is pointing out, it is refined Da'as that is at the root of both, as we will soon discuss. Had Nadav and Avihu refined their already refined da'as even more, the Torah is telling us, like so many others before them, including Adam HaRishon himself, their mistake could have been avoided. 

Pinchas Winston is the author of over 95 books on various topics that deal with current issues from a traditional Jewish perspective. He has also written on the weekly Torah reading since 1993, called Perceptions”, as well as on current topics and trends affecting Jewish history, past and present. One of his missions is to make the depth and beauty of the more mystical teachings of Torah understandable and accessible to those who can really benefit from them. Visit his website at thirtysix.org.


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