Stay Close; Keep your Distance

This week’s Parsha opens with a prohibition against entering the Sanctum Sanctorum whenever one wishes, and recalls the death of Nadav and Avihu, who perished as a result of coming ‘too close’ to God. The Torah then describes the special Yom Kippur offerings. Following that is the prohibition of Shechutei Chutz, bringing sacrifices outside the precincts of the Temple, which the Torah explicitly compares to foreign worship, here called ‘zivchei se’irim’.

These two prohibitions are antipodal. The first prohibits unrestrained ‘closeness’, the second, too much distance. The first is rooted in an unchecked ahava, a love which bespeaks too much familiarity. Distance between man and God must be maintained. The second is similar to idolatry in that both relate to deities as awesome powers, to be revered but not loved. As gravity threatens to consume the Earth in the sun, and as inertia alone would send the Earth hurtling off into space, so, too must fear and love operate in lockstep. Each becomes most valuable in the presence of the other.

The passages in between describe two particular services on Yom Kippur which are the exceptions to each rule. The High Priest on Yom Kippur must perform a service inside the Sanctum Sanctorum itself. There’s also the service of the Se’ir La-Azazel, when a ‘scapegoat’ is hurled off of a desert cliff. This is the only sacrifice brought outside the Temple. Whether this sacrifice is merely done outside or is actually a sanctioned form of worship of a non-God (as Ramban states, and as is borne out by the connection between Shchutei Chutz and ‘zivchei se’irim) really makes little difference, as the two are conceptually linked.

What can this teach about Yom Kippur, the day upon which these prohibitions are prohibited? There are two conceptual possibilities: that Yom Kippur is a day of heightened balance, or that it’s a day of no balance. The first possibility means that the essential dangers of ‘too close’ or ‘too far’ remain, so permitting one mandates permitting the second to balance. Yom Kippur is thus a day when we allow ourselves extreme religious experiences, provided that they remain balanced. This approach would not, however, explain why an extreme but balanced religious approach would be prohibited at other times.

The second approach, adopted by R’ Zadok in Dover Tzedek, pp.98-99, suggests that on Yom Kippur, normal restraints are unchained. We allow ourselves to get close enough to be burnt, or far enough to become paralyzed, and in these circumstances it’s OK. ‘These circumstances’ – the ‘be-zot’ of the beginning of the Parsha – refer to a state of being, unique to Yom Kippur, when all self-consciousness dissolves into God’s pure, all-embracing Will. This state transcends the dissociation of good and evil, as in it, there is nothing but God. Thus, these two commandments are subsumed under the notion of Aveirah Lishmah – an act that within the paramount reality is a transgression, but within certain states of consciousness become essential. R’ Zadok spells this out, specifically with regard to the Se’ir Ha-Mishtalei’ach – the scapegoat – in paragraph #40 of Tzidkas Ha-Tzaddik.

R’ Zadok (in the Dover Tzedek piece) detects this theme of balance between love and fear in several episodes in TaNach, beginning with the story of Nadav and Avihu and finally achieving balance in the episode of Eliyahu at Mt. Carmel, where Eliyahu brings the people closer to God through the medium of Shchutei Chutz. Along the way, he discusses Pinchas as a character who is struggling to achieve balance. It’s a wonderful piece. Ve-acamo”l. I specifically wanted to bring his points on the beginning of the Parsha, since the textual structure (which R’ Zadok was not so concerned with) and his conceptualization of these mitzvoth dovetail so well.

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