Parshat Aharei-Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30
In an interview on NPR, Nadia Bolz-Weber—the founder and pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver—talks about knowing that she will, at some point, disappoint or hurt the members of her community. For her, it is a question of when, not if. She names this often, and she invites her congregants to decide ahead of time to “stick around” when it happens. “Because if you leave,” she says, “you will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it’s too beautiful to miss. Don’t miss it.”
Making mistakes, disappointing or hurting one another—these are not only inevitable experiences of a human life, but they are also opportunities for profound connection with ourselves, with other humans, and with the great mystery of life itself. This is the “Torah”, the deep wisdom or truth, that Bolz-Weber shares in her interview and that animates her theology and her church.
This is also the Torah of Parshat Aharei-Mot, the parsha “after the death” of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died a couple of chapters back in Parshat Shemini, “in their coming close to God” (Leviticus 16:1). Some understand that Nadav and Avihu brought an offering to God with malicious or arrogant intent and were killed as punishment; others understand that they ventured beyond previously established boundaries of spiritual experience and were consumed by spiritual ecstasy. Either way, there was damage: they died. At the beginning of Leviticus Chapter 16, the Torah specifies that the instructions that follow were given by God after the death of Nadav and Avihu, which, the great commentator Rashi helps us understand, suggests that the instructions are somehow in response to their deaths.
The instructions that follow are for the Yom Kippur rituals: sacrifices of expiation, the famous goat sent to Azazel—and, for the first time, Aaron’s entrance into the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Tabernacle. It contains the ark, hidden by a curtain, over which hovers the cloud that conceals, or perhaps signifies, God’s presence..The most inner place. The most intimate place. I learned from Rabbi Nehemia Polen that Aaron only gets to enter that place because of the death of his two sons—that after Nadav and Avihu die trying to come close to God, God teaches Aaron how to do so safely.
Difficulty, rupture, loss, and pain make way for deeper intimacy. In the wake of disaster comes the possibility of healing, and healing means not returning to the previous status quo, but growing beyond it, growing towards greater connection and meaning. Yom Kippur, a day for atonement, may seem like an unfortunate concession to the reality that humans are flawed, and indeed this acknowledgement is a heavy one. But Aaron’s entrance into the holy of holies on that day suggests that it is also our greatest opportunity.
This does not mean, of course, that we may hurt one another wantonly, that the more we hurt, the more we can heal. In the second verse of this parsha, Aaron is cautioned not to enter the holy of holies “at any time.” According to Rashi, while the practical, halakhic conclusion of this verse means, “you may only do this ritual on Yom Kippur,” what it connotes is “don’t make it a habit of coming there, don’t get used to it.” Moreover, the punishment for entering at the wrong time is death. This is a high-stakes encounter; it should be a rare occurrence, and requires the utmost care, as well as great bravery and vulnerability.
Later in this parasha, we come across a verse that has caused tremendous difficulty, rupture, loss, and pain: Leviticus 18:22, the verse declaring “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” It is part of the traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon, taken from this week’s parasha. I understand this verse to be a human mistake, part of an approach to sexual ethics that is steeped in misogyny and fear. Communities that have continued to uphold the traditional understanding of this verse, instead of finding a way to let it go as we have with so many other verses, continue to perpetrate this harmful mistake.
Jay Michaelson suggests that the violence and pain experienced by queer people because of this verse has given us a special understanding of the central commandment to love God, and a special experience of intimacy with God. Because centuries of patriarchal and heterosexist social control have used this verse to justify tremendous violence against queer people, we have had to learn to validate our own experiences of love.
This, Michaelson writes, “forms a unique mode of moral conscience, and teaches in a distinctive way what it is to love God b’chol levavcha, b’chol nafshecha, u’v’chol meodecha [with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might]…Because queer love must reassert itself, re-understand itself, revalidate itself on an almost continual basis, it represents a distinctive opening to the Love of the One.” (Michaelson, Jay. “On the Religious Significance of Homosexuality; or, Queering God, Torah, and Israel.” In The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism, edited by Danya Ruttenberg. New York: New York University Press, 2009.)
Michaelson contends that the need to affirm for ourselves our love for other human beings, when it is demeaned by mainstream culture or other powerful institutions, has in fact led LGBTQ people to a distinctive experience of intimacy with God. But this deepened closeness to God and to each other in response to homophobia need not be reserved for queer people alone.
All people and communities in relationship with Leviticus 18:22 have the opportunity to acknowledge the mistake expressed by this verse and to atone for it, not only on Yom Kippur. That atonement has many potential forms, including: carefully examining our personal and communal attitudes to root out deeply held (and often hard-to-notice) prejudices, apologizing to queer people for the damage done, institutional change, and supporting queer teachers and students of Torah to bring our voices into the conversation. This high-stakes work of atonement, which requires bravery and vulnerability, affords all of us (queer and non-queer alike) tremendous opportunities for growth, generosity, and grace—the human experience of Divine love. As Bolz-Weber says, it’s too beautiful to miss. Don’t miss it.
Leora Abelson is in her final year of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, and serves Congregation Agudas Achim in Attleboro, MA. She and her partner live in Jamaica Plain, MA.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.