By Reb David
Passover approaches, and this week’s Torah portion (Acharei Mot) recounts a long list of laws to follow that seemingly have nothing to do with Passover. What gives?
Context is telling. Usually when Torah relates that God spoke, it recounts simply, “God spoke to Moses, saying….” Usually divine words are their own context. This week’s portion, however, offers rare words of context:
“God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of God. [Then] God spoke to Moses saying…” (Lev. 16:1-2).
These words invite us into this week’s portion via the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who brought God a “strange fire.” Through this context, God speaks as if to say, “Nadav and Avihu came too close to Me: they gave up their individuality completely. By doing so, they literally gave their lives. You don’t need to do that. You can serve holiness – you must serve holiness – with your individuality, not by losing yourself totally.”
In that sense, this portion’s laws share a quality of uniqueness. The ancient cultic practices of our Jewish ancestors united the people behind a shared tradition, but also helped inoculate them against temptations and magnetic attractions of the powerful nations surrounding them. Compared to Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Canaan, our desert-wandering ancestors were proverbial weaklings. As we’re reminded by the Golden Calf – a “god” in another culture’s image – peer pressure can be powerful, dangerous and destructive of our God-given individuality. Torah puts it directly:
God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I am Adonai your God. You will not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you: you will not follow their laws. My rules alone will you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I Adonai am your God. You will keep My laws and My rules, by pursuit of which humanity will [truly] live: I am God (Lev. 18:1-6).
In short, be different. Don’t surrender your individuality so fully that you cease to live, as did Nadav and Avihu. Don’t sacrifice your uniqueness to any earthly power and thereby stem the flow of holiness through your uniqueness. That would be the very epitome of slavery. You weren’t freed from Egypt (Mitzrayim, the narrow place) to remain enslaved to anyone or anything.
Next week during Passover, Jews around the world will re-tell and re-live this ancient liberation: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” our lives and identity subsumed in bondage. “And then God led us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” so that we could be true to ourselves and to God without the fear of any human taskmaster. May each of us bring this legacy to life with courage and joy.