Acharei Mot

 1. And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they drew near before the Lord, and they died.

2. And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to your brother Aaron, that he should not come at all times into the Holy within the dividing curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he should not die, for I appear over the ark cover in a cloud.

(Leviticus 16:1-2)

This parshah describes the service of the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest – performed on Yom Kippur. Why does it start by referencing the death of the two sons of Aaron (the first Kohen Gadol), Nadav and Avihu?  What relevance does this have to the topic at hand?  As we read earlier, “Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before G-d, which He commanded them not. A fire went out from G-d, and consumed them, and they died before G-d” (Leviticus 10:1-2).  Perhaps, the Torah mentions the death of Nadav and Avihu again in this parshah because it wants to give us a clue as to why they died.  The clue, I would submit, is in the cloud as in the verse “… I appear over the ark cover in a cloud.”

The law of Temple service requires that before the Kohen Gadol may enter the Kodesh Hakadoshim – the Holy of Holies – he must first burn the incense to fill the room with smoke.  It appears that this was precisely the intention of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who placed incense in their censers and lit them to fill the Holy of Holies with the cloud of smoke, as they were supposed to.  What was their mistake then?  The Talmud (Eruvin 63a?) relates that Rabbi Mani of She’ab, Rabbi Joshua of Siknin, and Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Levi said (inter alia): The sons of Aaron died… because they had drunk wine, as it says [immediately following the incident], “Drink no wine nor strong drink… that you die not” (Leviticus 10:9).

We know that Nadav and Avihu were great tzaddikim – righteous people.  Moreover, Moshe said to his brother, Aaron that Nadav and Avihu were even greater than they were themselves: “…now I see that your two sons are greater than you or I.” (Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)  How could such great tzaddikim enter the Holy of Holies while in a state of drunkenness?!  A simple chasid, before going to yehidus (private audience) with his Rebbe, fasts and does penitence an entire day.  Can we really imagine that these spiritual giants, the sons of a High Priest and deputy High Priests themselves, would get merry and drunk before a private audience with G‑d in the Holy of Holies?!

In an earlier post, The Theological Uncertainty Principle, we discussed the interpretation of the first two of the Ten Commandments by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Ishbica Rebbe’s.  To summarize: the First Commandment starts with Anochi Hashem Elokecho – I am the Lord thy G‑d .  The Ishbica, as he is called, says that the word Anochi is an unusual choice of word for “I”.  More often, the word Ani is used to denote “I,” as in this parshah where, in the verse “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your G‑d, am holy,” (Lev. 19:2), the word Ani is used to denote “I.”  According to the Ishbica, the word Anochi, (spelled Alef-Nun-Kaf-Yud) can be rewritten as Alef-Nun-Yud-Kaf and broken into two parts: Alef-Nun-YudAni and Kaf (pronounced as “k”).  Ani stands for “I” and the letter Kaf when appearing before a word is called kaf hadimyon – a prefix denoting uncertainty and approximation – “like.”  For example, the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Loewe) (commenting on Rashi to BaMidbar 30:2) says that in the frequent expression used by prophets to introduce a prophecy: “Koh amar Hashem” (“Thus says G‑d”), the word koh – thus – begins with a kaf hadimyon to convey the point that the forthcoming prophecy was a qualitative approximation. All of the prophets aside from Moses had their visions as approximations. In the language of the Talmud, they saw them through an opaque glass whereas Moses saw through a clear glass.  So the First Commandment may be translated, according to the Ishbica, as follows: “ I am something like the Lord your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” Or “I am approximately the Lord your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt…”. In other words, G‑d is telling us that we cannot know who He really is; we cannot know his true essence.  At best, we can have a vague conception of what Divine is, to the extent that it relates to us.

In a similar vein, the Ishbica interprets the Second Commandment containing the prohibition of idolatry – “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of any thing…” – as the flip side of the First Commandment.  Making an idol with a concrete physical form by either painting an icon or making a statue presumes a precise knowledge of G‑d to be depicted on the canvas, in stone or otherwise, which is impossible according to the First Commandment.  The sin of idolatry, according to the Ishbica, is the arrogant presumption of knowledge of the Unknowable G‑d. Thus far is the Ishbica’s explanation.

In the Kedusha – the holiest part of the daily prayers we say the verse from Isaiah, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with his glory.”  The word kadosh can mean not only “holy” but also “separated” or “removed.”  Why do we say the word kadosh three times?  I would like to suggest that, perhaps, one way to understand this is that G‑d is removed from our understanding by being above all three levels of our intellect – above knowledge (da’at), above understanding (binah) and above wisdom (chochmah).  The second part of this verse – “the whole world is filled with his glory” – can be understood in terms of quantum physics.  Taking a poetic license, perhaps we can say that it is the wavefunction of G‑d, as it where, that fills the entire world.  Indeed, in quantum mechanics, we don’t know anything about the quantum object itself; we only know the object’s wavefunction, which is a distribution of probabilities, i.e., the fuzzy reflection of the state of the object in our knowledge.  That is why Niels Bohr famously said that quantum mechanics is not an ontological theory but it is an epistemological theory, because it doesn’t describe the world, it only describes our state of knowledge about the world.  The knowledge about G‑d is called G‑d’s glory.  It is not G‑d Himself, but a dim reflection of Him in our consciousness.  Just like the wavefunction of a particle fills the entire space, so does the glory – “wavefunction” – of G‑d, as it were, fills the entire world.

With this in mind, we can understand the Ishbica’s interpretation in light of quantum physics as follows.  Anochi – “I” – in the First Commandment, which, according to Ishbica, may be read “I am approximately something like…” may be viewed as a wavefunction of G‑d.  What we perceive as G‑d is really a vague and enigmatic reflection, an approximation of who He really is, which is an inscrutable mystery.  The Second Commandment restates the sane idea in a negative form as an admonition: Do not attempt to collapse My wavefunction, i.e., do not attempt to pierce this mystery of My being, which is unknowable to you. As G‑d told Moshe, “No man can see Me and live!” (Ex. 33:20)

This is why, before entering the Holy of Holies, the Kohen Gadol was required to first fill the room with the smoke of ketoret – incense – so that he would not be able to gaze at the Divine Presence resting between two keruvim (cherubs) directly, but through a cloud of smoke.  This is what G‑d said to Moses to tell Aaron, the High Priest in this parshah, “…for I appear over the ark cover in a cloud. 

But what about the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu?  Apparently, they understood acutely the prohibition of gazing at the Divine.  This is why they “…took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it,” in order to engulf the Holy of Holies with smoke so as not to gaze at the Divine Presence – Shechinah – directly.

Their mistake lies in the second part of the story, as the Gemara (Talmud) quoted above mentions.  They became drunk.  Why did they get intoxicated?  One answer may be, I suppose, that they were a bit too frum, too pious.  They were afraid that, perhaps, they could still see the Shechinah through the cloud of smoke in violation of the first two commandments that they had heard on Mount Sinai.  (Not that they could see a physical image, because the Shechinah – the Divine Presence – that was resting between two Kruvim (Cherubs) in the Holy of Holies had no physical shape or form.  Nevertheless, an image in one’s mind that may emerge from gazing or meditating on Shechinah may be erroneously mistaken for an image of G‑d who has no image.)  To ensure that would not happen under any circumstances, they decided to dull their senses and their intellect by making a few lechaims as a measure of extra precaution. 

This was their fatal error.  While a Kohen Gadol must fill the Holy of Holies with smoke before entering it because G‑d appears to man only in a cloud of smoke (revealing only His wavefunction, as it were, but not His Divine essence), a smoke (the fuzziness and uncertainty) must be external to us, while we ourselves must maintain clarity of mind at all times.  We are not supposed to inhale the smoke and take trips to spiritual realms.  Perhaps this is why Jewish spiritual practices never included the use of drugs or hallucinogens as virtually all other spiritual traditions did.  We must maintain the fuzziness and uncertainty outside.  To be able to deal with an uncertainty, one must have a clear mind.  We must stand sober before G‑d to be able to fully understand that we cannot understand Him, although we can be like Him as this parshah emphatically states, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your G‑d, am holy.”