Acharei

In Parashat Shemini, the Tabernacle was inaugurated and began to fulfill its function—to bring the Divine Presence into the daily lives and consciousness of the people. But the excitement and rapture of this special day—the first day of Nisan, 2449—was marred by the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, the two eldest sons of Aaron. As we have explained,1 Nadav and Avihu died prematurely because, in a sense, this is what they aspired to: to leave the shackles of physicality and expire in the ecstasy of Divine revelation.

God’s response to this error of judgment was to teach His people the lesson that, yes, it is commendable and even crucial to want to divest oneself from the constricted consciousness of this world in order to cling to God, but this must at all times remain only one side of the coin, and the subordinate side of the coin, at that. The main emphasis in our lives should be on fulfilling our mission, the purpose for which we (and the world) were created: to elevate and refine reality such that God’s presence can be manifest here, as well.

There are two possible reasons to seek to escape from this world. Aware of how sublimely sweet it is to bask in the Divine Presence, we can desire to reach this state of bliss. Or, aware of how degraded and degenerate our involvement with life has made us, we can want to renounce this involvement and escape into the sheltered sanctuaries of holiness.

Therefore, God divided His lesson on the importance of the Divine imperative to fulfill our mission in the world into two parts. The first was “not to drink to intoxication”2—not to drink so much of the wine of holiness that it makes us oblivious to the world around us. In their attempt to reach Divine ecstasy, Nadav and Avihu drank too much wine—both literally and metaphorically (as we will see); God therefore immediately instructed us not to do this, as is recorded immediately after the account of Nadav and Avihu’s death, in parashat Shemini.

The second part of the lesson was “not to enter the sanctuary at all times,”3 for in their Divine zeal, Nadav and Avihu had entered the sanctuary on their own initiative rather than in response to God’s call or command. Although God told us this part of the lesson, too, on the first of Nisan, His words are not recorded in the Torah until the present parashah, parashat Acharei, i.e., two-and-a-half parashiot later, following the laws of kashrut given in the second half of Shemini and the laws of purity and impurity given in Tazria and Metzora. This raises the obvious question: Why should the account of the events of the first day of Nisan be interrupted by such a lengthy digression concerning the laws of spiritual and ritual purity?

The reason is because, as we have noted previously,4 the essence of the laws of kashrut, as well as those of purity and impurity is to educate us how to sustain Divine consciousness while engaged in our physical lives. In this context, the second half of parashat Shemini and parashiot Tazria and Metzora follow naturally after all the preceding parashiot in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus: after we have been given the laws pertaining to human conduct (parashiot Yitro, Mishpatim) and the sanctification of our lives through the Temple and its rites (parashiot Terumah, Tetzaveh, Tisa, Vayakheil, Pekudei, Vayikra, Tzav, and the first half of Shemini), the Torah’s next order of business is to discuss how to sanctify the physical world and maintain our sanctity while involved with it.

Essential to this process is knowing how to distinguish between what is kosher or “pure” and what is not—in other words, what is conducive to and enhances Divine consciousness and what is detrimental to it and undermines it. In order to foster a relationship with God, we have to be aware of the pitfalls in life that threaten this relationship and how to avoid them.

We also have to be aware that, being human, the chance exists that we may become “defiled” by these pitfalls. And, if this happens, we must also be aware that a mechanism exists to counteract this fall in consciousness—teshuvah. The process of teshuvah—the reorientation of the individual toward Godliness—climaxes with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

The commandment “not to enter the sanctuary at all times” is part of the laws of Yom Kippur. The second half of Shemini together with Tazria and Metzora constitute a guide how to identify and overcome the impurities of this world. Acharei—the laws of Yom Kippur—teaches us how to then go on to achieve total purification and release from the defilement of consciousness that involvement in this world often entails.

But an integral part of this instruction is “not to enter the sanctuary at all times”—not to abandon involvement in this world. This is the answer to the second side of Nadav and Avihu’s Divine escapism: that when overcome with remorse over having been defiled by the exigencies of life and possessed of the desire to flee into the safety and security of holiness, we should still not lose sight of our purpose and mission in life.5

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The fact that the Torah deems it necessary to link two events temporarily, by stating that one occurred “after” (acharei) the other, implies that the second is in some way dependent upon the first having happened before it. Thus, the second event can be seen as a continuation or culmination of the first, prior event. On the other hand, since there will inevitably be another, third event that will follow the second, the second event cannot be considered the ultimate completion or culmination of the first. By the same token, the third event cannot claim this title either, since there will a fourth event following on its heels, and so on, ad infinitum.

Or rather, almost ad infinitum, since there is one event that will constitute a quantum leap in existence, namely, the final, ultimate Redemption. Since life after the Redemption will be on an entirely higher order of reality, the events that will occur then cannot be properly considered “follow-through” to what happened prior to the Redemption. Thus, the Redemption will be a discontinuity relative to everything preceding it, and in this sense it may be rightly considered the ultimate completion of all that came before it. It will be the true acharei (“after”), which is why it is sometimes referred to as “the End of Days,” or literally, “the after days” (acharit hayamim).6

Parashat Acharei, then, by its very name, directs our gaze to the ultimate future: the messianic Redemption and all that will follow it. Aware that both the advent and the fullness of the Divine revelations that will accompany and follow the Redemption depend upon our conduct and efforts prior to the Redemption, we should be inspired to imbue our lives with redemptive consciousness.

This means, first of all, that we should seek to liberate every aspect (i.e., constituent entity or moment) of our lives from its “exilic” consciousness by sanctifying it—making it into an opportunity to fulfill a Divine commandment or perform some other good deed—thereby revealing its Divine source.

Additionally, we should seek to live our lives to whatever extent possible with post-Redemption consciousness, i.e., conscious that nothing can constitute an obstacle to fulfilling our Divine mission, just as in the messianic future there will be no obstacles to Divine consciousness or Divine revelation.

Furthermore, we know that in the messianic future, all nations and peoples will accept God’s authority over them, as it is written, “I will then transform the nations to speak a pure language, so they will all call upon the Name of God, to serve Him with one accord.”7 Living with messianic consciousness thus also includes encouraging non-Jews both to accept the seven categories of commandments they are obligated to accept8 and to live peacefully and generously with one another.9 All humanity will then be able to freely pursue Divine knowledge and enhance their Divine consciousness, thereby transforming the world into God’s ultimate home.10