Rabbi Nosson Gurary, one of the vintage shluchim who has been working on a college campus in upstate New York for over 30 years, recently related one of his early outreach experiences. It was Yom Kippur and he had been active for several weeks to organize a minyan for that holy day. At that time, however, he did not realize that most university students did not have the patience or the knowledge to sit through a traditional Yom Kippur service.

He had managed to pull together an evening minyan for the Kol Nidrei service and with a little effort had managed to regroup a quorumfor the morning services, but was short one person for the Afternoon and Neilah prayers.

Now Neilah is the high point of the entire Yom Kippur service. He wouldn’t feel comfortable having the students recite those prayers without a minyan. But where to find a tenth man?

He went out to the campus green, but it was surprisingly empty. As the sun turned lower, he made his way to the cafeteria as a last resort. Sure enough, he came across a Jewish student, holding a dinner tray. The student had never even heard of Yom Kippur, let alone the terms minyan or neillah. The Rabbi explained his urgent need, and the student agreed to attend, but only after he finished his meal. He had already paid for the food, and was looking forward to enjoying it. The Rabbi’s description of the delicious repast Chabad had prepared to break the fast didn’t convince him. And so Rabbi Gurary sat there in the cafeteria in his tallis and his white Yom Kippur robe, waiting for the student to finish his dinner.

The story has a happy ending. The student attended the services and was touched by the sincerity of the Rabbi’s prayer. He stayed — not only for the meal — but to talk to him. This began a process of inner search and development that ultimately led him back to his Jewish roots.

Parshas Acharei

This Torah reading begins by recalling how Aaron’s sons died when they entered the Holy of Holies with a strange fire. It then relates the order of the sacrificial service of Yom Kippur.

Why does it mention the death of Aaron’s sons? Because the circumstances in which they died provide us with two lessons to apply in our Divine service:

a) a positive one — that every Jew has the potential to draw as close to G‑d as they did; and

b) a negative one — that their service was considered a sin, because although they drew close to G‑d, they did not think of applying that closeness to their lives as lived within the limits of our ordinary existence.

These two perspectives are reflected in the names by which this Torah reading is called. Some refer to it as Acharei, while others call it Acharei Mos. It is possible to say that the use of one name or the other depends on which of the above dimensions is chosen for emphasis.

Acharei means “after.” The height of connection reached by Aaron’s sons generated the potential for similar closeness in the Jewish people “afterwards”. Acharei Mos (“after the death of”), by contrast, places the accent on the negative outcome that resulted from the failure to complement closeness to G‑d with a commitment to develop an awareness of Him in this material world. This concept also relates to the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. Then he enters the Holy of Holies, drawing close to the Divine Presence. At this time, he should recall the lesson of Aaron’s sons, remembering the importance, not only of entering the Holy of Holies, but of departing, and afterwards, continuing this spiritual closeness while involved in everyday life.

Lubavitch custom is to call the Torah reading Acharei, highlighting the closeness with G‑d that can be achieved by every Jew. For the core of every Jewish soul is at one with G‑d, inseparably linked. This bond surpasses that established through the observance of mitzvos. Although mitzvos create a bond between the commanded and the Commander, the two remain separate entities. In essence, however, the Jews and G‑d are absolutely at one. This is the level of consciousness which surfaces on Yom Kippur service.

On this level of soul, a Jew’s obedience to G‑d is not a matter of choice — for which there is reward or punishment — but a purely natural response, a simple expression of the inner self. As R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev would say, it is not a commitment to observance which prevents a Jew from eating on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, which Jew wants to eat?!

And from Yom Kippur, this connection can be continued Acharei, “afterwards,” shifting the entire spectrum of observance to a higher level. The inner connection between a Jew and G‑d can suffuse every aspect of life. When it does, the struggle of day-to-day existence cannot threaten dedication to the Eternal, for in this state, a mortal is continuously connected to G‑d, with no possibility of separation.

Looking to the Horizon

Yom Kippur is considered a foretaste of the Era of the Resurrection when our souls will descend again to our physical bodies and yet, there will be no need to eat and drink, for the soul will derive nurture from the G‑dliness that will be revealed at that time.

The above explanations also enable us to understand our Sages’ statement that the observance of mitzvos will be nullified in the Ultimate Future. The word mitzvah means “command.” The intent is not, Heaven forbid, that we will not observe mitzvos in that future era, but then our observance will not be a response to G‑d’s command. We will observe the mitzvos naturally, as a matter of course, almost without thinking. Since the essential G‑dliness of our souls and the world will be revealed, there will be no other option. Just like our bodies will breathe, they will also observe mitzvos.