Is Parshat Acharei the Jewish Version of Xmas in July?
“And Hashem said to Moses
after Aaron’s two sons died
when they drew near before Hashem
|| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe
| acharei mot shnei benei Aharon
| bekorvatam lifnei Hashem
If you are a follower of the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe you cannot help but be engrained with one thought which is central to his teachings, to live with the weekly Torah sidra (the assigned section of Torah reading). This was a teaching stressed by the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. It comes down to us from the teachings of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Alter Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi who said “We must live with the times;” which was interpreted by his family and successors as meaning to live with Torah portion for that week. Based on that Chabad chassidim took up the practice of learning a portion of the weekly reading everyday along with the cometary of Rashi for understanding. The Friediker Rebbe (the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe) also clearly expounded upon this meaning saying that what was meant was “One must live with the times. One must not only learn the daily portion, but actually experience it in one’s own life.”
The Frediker Rebbe was taught by his father, the Rebbe Rashab, who said that as we read through the parsha we should allow ourselves to experience the Torah. When we read about the creation we should live the wonder of creation, when we study of the rise and fall of man we should let ourselves experience that in our daily lives. Week by week living out the experiences of the Torah, for joy and sorrow. Practically, it means to look at the experiences our forebears and make it personal until we can empathize with the situation and see the truth of their experiences.
This has been easy to do during our studies so far. Up until now we have be following the order of parashiot, all along the way I have been pointing out how thematically they have been been keeping in close step with the seasons. As we started approaching the month of Nissan we started reading about the work for erecting the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and inaugurating it, which took place in this same month. But all of sudden we are thrown into discussing the death of Aharon’s sons again. Even more out of place in this first chapter, we start talking about the method of atonement that is used on Yom Kippur.
This has always troubled me. He we are going in to Pesach, the busiest time of the year. It’s filled with the crazy buzz of constant cleaning, planning, buying, selling, with guests and travel plans. All in all, it’s insane. It’s hard to think about anything else but getting everything done. If we are to live out the Torah portion, this week is a bad week about considering another month of high holidays with almost equally crazy plans. It seems out of place, now I know what non-Jews mean when they talk about “Xmas in July.” Sometimes I wonder if this expectation is realistic, I mean sometimes I wanna say “yeah I don’t feel it this week, I’m too caught up in this, here and now.”
Is the Torah Speaking Out of Order: Chronology, Thematic Progression, or Both?
Now if I was a cynic I would look at this week and this parsha and say that not only is it a bad time, but this parsha has some good examples of why this type of approach by the Chassidim can be seen as fatuous, or at the very least adorable to the “true scholar” who knows that the parshas are just sections the Torah the rabbis divided up so we can get through it in a year.
This cynic would point out that here we have our first verse saying “acharei mot shnei benei Aharon / after the death of Aaron’s two sons.” I would point out that it is not common in biblical Hebrew to use this word “acharei/after” in all the same ways that we use the word “after” in English. Acharei ordinarily means in relation to something, in the future sense; this happened after that. Here it appears that we could be backtracking in the time-line to the moments after the death of the two sons. Then we end up talking about Yom Kippur on the exact opposite end of the year. If the Torah skips around maybe we are just skipping around with different themes here and there throughout the Torah as many suggest. Maybe this is just the lot we have for this week, and it’s as simple as that.
Rashi however actually takes an interesting position, one which we can relate to linguistically. Rashi suggest that when the word acharei is used here it should bear the meaning of subsequence. He cites Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah who makes the argument that the Torah phrases it this way for emphasis, using an actual example, not just saying “don’t do this” but more precisely saying “don’t do this, because after all, look at what happened to them.”
No we can say this is still following the same time-line, and besides the death of the two sons of Aharon was only a few days ago during the set-up of the Mishkan. But what about the odd mention to Yom Kippur, why now?
I don’t want to take up too much time on it, but let’s look at something very shocking both in the time-line of the Torah reading, but also in the actual current Jewish calendar. Today I sit here writing this on the 8th day of Nissan, in our last parsha we read about the inauguration of the Mishkan which was finished on the 8th day of Nissan. So here we move into the new parsha, the Mishkan and the priests are sanctified and now its time for them to take up the work of the holy service.
Ahh, now it becomes apparent to us if we walk in their footsteps, and look at the “to do list” of the day-planner for today. Before now no one had any reason to go into the sanctuary let alone behind the screen into the Holy of Hollies. But now the service was being handed over to the priests, and the presence of G-d dwelt there now so it became necessary to set up some safety measures so that the deaths they recently experiences in the household of the priests would not happen again. Thus we read in the second verse of our parsha that Moses is to tell Aharon that he is not to enter in beyond the screen at just any time, because if he does me could die. Then the chapter details how he is supposed to wash, dress, offer sacrifices, and perform the atonement rituals. Only then near the end of the chapter do we read that this whole ritual should take place “bachodesh hash’vii beasor l’chodesh / in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month.” (v. 29) The date of atonement is brought up last because the same principals apply the rest of the year, this is the only method of entering into the most holy place; you cannot do it without purpose and you must not do it without readying yourself in this way.
We’ll apparently we are still following the same time-line after all. The topic is apropos because the Mishkan is being handed over to the priests and they are being given a last briefing in “how to operate it correctly” so to speak. Final safety rules are being laid down to save from any mishaps.
So we find that at least we are still following a line of logic within the theme of the text, great. And the close proximity of the narrative to the seasons is eerily close. But what do these two different season have in common with each other? Actually, it’s a lot. Both this month and the month of Yom Kippur possess a Jewish New Year, and holidays that are more similar than than at any other time of the year. They are like mirror images of each other.
Two Jewish New Years
Let us step back from this story for the moment and think about it for a second. The most important question is, when is this story taking place? As I have pointed out we are in the month of the inauguration of the Miskhan, which Exodus identifies for us:
“And it shall be that in the first month,
in the second year,
on the first of the month
the Mishakan (the tabernacle) shall be erected”
|| Vaye’hi bachodesh harishon,
| bshana hasheinit,
| b’echad l’chodesh,
| hukam hamishkan
What is the first month then? Well, in the month of the Exodus from Egypt we are told:
“This month shall be to you
the start of the months,
it shall be the first month of the year to you.”
|| Hachodesh hazeh lachem
| rosh chadashim,
| rishon hu lachem lechad’shei hashanah
The Torah established the start of the year with the month of the Exodus. The name Nissan is never used. In fact even the siddur (the Hebrew prayerbook) doesn’t specify the name of this month, it just calls it “zman cheiruteinu / the season of our freedom”. This is the beginning of sacrifices regarding new moons as well, so this is the month we start counting from. In the biblical age months were counted numerically, from the month of Exodus. This is our spiritual year.
It was not until the second Temple period that we would see the names of the months assigned. Jews had been released from their captivity that began in the Babylonian exile and that ended in their return under the patronage of their Persian liberators. The Jewish people, who had adopted the Aramaic language of the near east kept the names of the months according to the common culture. The roots of the name of Tishrei for example come from the Akkadian language of Mesopotamia where the month was called “Tashritu,” or “Sherei” in Aramaic which means “to begin.” The month of Tishrei began to be regarded as the beginning of the civil year. Today it is the de-facto New Year we are all most familiar with.
The difference between the two points of reference is like the difference between the calendar year and the “fiscal year.” But both starting months are regarded as the beginning of the year, but for different purposes of accounting. Nissan and Tishrei are exactly six months (180 degrees) opposite each other, yet they both have New Years in them.
They both contain long, week-encompassing holidays, which required pilgrimages to worship at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Nissan bears the first of these pilgrimages, Pesach which begins on the full moon of spring harvest. Tishrei bears the last of these pilgrimages, Sukkot which corresponds with the full moon of the fall harvest.
In Tishrei our main focus is repentance, which culminates in the observance of Yom Ha-Kippurim, the Day of Atonements on the “tenth day of the seventh month” (Leviticus 16:29) as we read in our parsha. Nissan culminates with observing Pesach. We read “beasor lachodesh hazeh veyikechu lachem ish seh… / on the tenth day of this month, a man shall bring a lamb.” (Exodus 12:3) The pascal lamb was to begin to be prepared on the tenth day of the month of Nissan.
When you compare point by point, these months have a whole lot specifically in common with each other, so considering them in this parsha its not really a distraction. And besides that, like with the rest of the Torah, we can find common themes here that are good to consider at any time of the year. Maybe its not convenient to have to think about this right now, but that’s what the Torah give us to work with. The Torah doesn’t give us this parsha with its observance of Yom Kippur to further weigh us down. Nor do I think it’s a case of “Xmas in July,” yes one can suggest thinking about a holiday where one only fasts instead of putting in the backbreaking work for a kosher Pesach is probably a nice distraction, but I don’t think its that either.
I believe the lesson in this parsha is that we need to find balance. These two starts of the year are opposite each other, yet they do not counter each other. They are two different tracks that parallel each, they work independently yet harmoniously to make one whole circuit. The “civil year” is just as important as our “spiritual year.” They compliment each other. I believe that this parsha gives us a hint, that we should seriously consider our moral and civil obligations that we will answer for in Tishrei at all times, even now in the season of spiritual heights and planning chaos. Now in the “season of our freedom” we need to start giving really good thought about how we are going to answer for what we’ve done with that freedom on the flip side!