The parsha Acharei Mot opens with an admonition for Aaron. After the death of Nadab and Abihu, the High Priest’s two elder sons, G-d commands Moses, “Speak with Aaron, your brother, [and tell him] that he should not enter the Holy [of Holies] at any time. . .” (Leviticus 16:2). Rather, “With this Aaron should enter the Holy [of Holies] a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.” (Leviticus 16:3). The Torah then describes the Yom Kippur service the High Priest conducted every year. It details the rituals and the vestments he should wear as he fulfills his duties on that day
The command to Aaron, the High Priest, not to “enter [the Holy of Holies] at any time [he wishes]” requires clarification on two counts. First, the Torah could have omitted the verse entirely. The text could have skipped over the prohibition. After the introduction in verse 1, the text could proceed directly to verse 3, which sets out in detail when and how the High Priest may go into the Holy of Holies. The text would convey the same message as it does in its current form: Aaron, the High Priest, may enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur only, and he must follow the directions the rest of Chapter 16 describes.
Ezor Eliyahu (Lemberg 1889) notes a narrower problem here. While conceding the need for verse 2, with its explicit prohibition against the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies, the commentary notes that בכלעת, “at any time [he wishes]” seem superfluous. The Torah could say that Aaron may not enter the Holy of Holies, period. The text would continue: however, “with this” — the sacrifices and clad in the appropriate robes — he may do so on Yom Kippur.
Ezor Eliyahu explains that the phrase serves an important purpose. The Hebrew language uses the same word, עת, for “time” and “season” or “period.” Based on Ecclesiastes (“To everything there is a season ….” 3:1-6), our Sages list 14 favorable time periods and 14 ominous time periods for the Jews. G-d tells Moses to relate to Aaron that he should not enter the Holy of Holies with dark thoughts that he is performing the Yom Kippur service during a period in which Divine Judgment reigns.
Rather, he should seek atonement on behalf of the Jewish people with a sense of confidence that G-d’s Mercy abounds. In addition, Aaron should enter with a sense of awe, not fear, of G-d. Bringing a sacrifice induces the former, the antidote to the latter.
Ezor Eliyahu takes another approach, which originated with Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, 1700?-1760), the founder of Hasidism. He preached that, whenever someone fulfills a mitzvah, he must pray. The reason: to protect oneself from the smugness and the resulting arrogance that may befall a person who knows he has just done a good deed.
This problem had arisen when G-d spoke to Moses here. Rashi in Shemini lists several causes for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, who brought unauthorized fire to the altar of the Tabernacle. Among others: their failure to consult Moshe and Aaron before acting. In short, overconfidence in their own righteousness.
Therefore, G-d told Moses to relay to Aaron that when he enters the Holy of Holies, he must bring with him sacrifices on behalf of himself and family, his priestly colleagues and the Jewish people. As with the prayer the Baal Shem Tov prescribed, this will ward off smugness and arrogance. Aaron is entering the Holy of Holies, not as a symbol of his greatness, but to serve the Jewish people. Therefore, he may not go in “at any time [he wishes].” It is not about him. He may enter when the Jews need him to do so, on Yom Kippur.
In a similar way, we can resolve the broader question of why the Torah includes verse 2 at all. Some authorities hold that verse 2 does not deal with Yom Kippur. Unlike later High Priests, Aaron could enter the Holy of Holies on days other than Yom Kippur. In connection with verse 3, Ezor Eliyahu quotes the Midrash Rabbah in the name of Rabbi Judah ben Siemon. To avoid embarrassing Aaron as a result of the actions of his sons, G-d told Moshe that Aaron could enter the Holy of Holies anytime he wishes; however, he must bring a sacrifice (or, as Rashi quotes Tractate Rosh Hashanah, incense). Entry to the Holy of Holies in the course of performing a religious service lends a purpose to Aaron’s action.
I suggest that verse 2 tells us that Aaron may go into the Holy of Holies any day of the year, but he cannot enter on an impulse, as his sons had done. Whenever Aaron wants to go into the Holy of Holies, he must bring a sacrifice or an offering of incense. G-d required Aaron, the High Priest, to take the time to prepare a sacrifice or an offering. He cannot just walk into the Holy of Holies. By following G-d’s procedures, Aaron would cool the passion so fatal to his sons.
Experts teach us the urgent necessity for us to maintain boundaries in order to live a healthy and balanced life. G-d’s message to Aaron emphasizes the need for staying within the lines. We must act: never out of fear, always with confidence in a favorable outcome, knowing our place, putting other people first, and taking care to think through beforehand what we are about to do.
By Joshua Z. Rokach
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah (YISE) in Kemp Mill, Maryland, and former gabbai of the main minyan at YISE and at Kesher Israel in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He has taught a weekly Talmud class at both synagogues, and has served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors of both synagogues as well. A retired attorney, Joshua has lived in the Greater Washington area since 1976 and in Kemp Mill since 1986.