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G-d instructs Moshe to warn his brother Aharon to maintain a respectful distance from G-d and to enter the Holy of Holies only at certain prescribed times and under certain conditions. Moshe himself did not need to be cautioned about this because he had shown his awe of G-d at the outset by fearing to look at Him when they first met at the burning bush (Shemos 3:6).

Nadav and Avihu, who were members of the first group of kohanim, did not show the same degree of respect. We are told that at the revelation, they looked at G-d even as they continued to eat and drink (Shemos 24:11). Eventually, they paid with their lives for this display of disrespect. If Nadav and Avihu, who were even greater than the elders of Israel, were susceptible to becoming too familiar with G-d while discharging their priestly duties, then Aharon needed to be warned about this danger too, if not for his own protection, then for the protection of high priests of future generations.


According to Rashi, the only time Aharon was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies was on Yom Kippur when G-d was obscured by the cloud of smoke produced by the special incense, the Ketores, burned on the altar on Yom Kippur. This Yom Kippur incense was ground even finer than the regular daily incense offered up by the kohen in the Temple. The regular Ketores was brought twice a day, each day of the year, to atone for the sin of lashon hara, slander. One who slanders other human beings denigrates G-d’s creations. G-d cannot be in the same room with the slanderer. The Ketores, which includes among its sweet ingredients one bad smelling spice, and yet manages to deodorize it, atones for the sin of slander. That is why the kohen has to approach the altar each day with Ketores. The Ketores is his daily admission card to G-d. But on Yom Kippur, when we are expected to reach for angelic heights, we have to take extra precautions and avoid any innuendo of slander, known as avak lashon hara, “dust of slander.” That is why on Yom Kippur, a third portion of Ketores, ground extra fine, was used to produce the cloud of smoke in the Holy of Holies that neutralized even the slightest hint of slander before the kohen could enter.

When entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to ask for forgiveness, the high priest was required to put aside his golden garments and to don the simple white linen garments of the ordinary priests (Vayikra 16:4). He was to appear as a beggar at the gate, not as a celebrity. A celebrity should have known better than to sin. But a beggar will illicit sympathy, notwithstanding his sins.

This is also the symbolism behind the goat sent to Azazel. The word Azazel is an abbreviation of Uza and Azael (Bereishis 6:2, Yoma 67b,) the two angels who questioned G-d’s wisdom in creating man. After all, they argued, it is man’s destiny to sin for he has never seen G-d directly. The angels, who have seen G-d, could not possibly sin, even if they were sent down to earth. But as soon as they landed on earth, they joined the crowd and did sin, because now they were human. It is a foregone conclusion that a human will sin, for “there is no man on earth that does good and does not sin” (Koheles 7:20). And so the Azazel goat is sent to the Eretz Gezeira, the land where it is decreed that humans will sin, to remind G-d that we are not sinning because we are rebellious, but because we are human.

When the high priest brought his own personal bull sacrifice, he proceeded in the following order (according to Rabbi Shimon, Yoma 61a). First he confessed all of his own sins (Vayikra 16:6) and only then did he slaughter the bull and sprinkle its blood on the inner altar (Vayikra 16:11) in atonement for the specific sin of tumat Mikdash u’kedoshav – for entering the Temple in a state of impurity. But when the high priest brought the communal sacrifice on behalf of the Jews, he proceeded in the reverse order. First he offered up the sa’ir Lashem (the goat designated by the lottery for sacrifice on the altar) in atonement for the Jews’ specific sin of tumat Mikdash u’kedoshav (Vayikra 16:9, 15 and 16) and only then did he lean his hands on the Azazel goat in confession of all of the sins of the Jews (Vayikra 16:21). Why the switch?

What the Torah is telling us is that there are two roads that lead to sin and one can never be sure which path one took. Some may have sinned because they forget the mantra of “Shevisi Hashem l’negdi tamid” (I place Hashem before me, always) and are so oblivious to His presence that they can walk into the Temple and sin right in front of Him. Others who are closer to the level of the kohen gadol and are acutely aware of G-d’s presence may have allowed themselves to succumb to a few sins that dulled that awareness.

There are many sins for which the Torah prescribes death at the hand of G-d. It is our own life that is on the line – “Va’asisem olah” (Bamidbar 29:2), “You should bring yourself as a sacrifice.” But G-d in his mercy allows us to substitute the life of an animal for our own lives. But we can only save our lives if we bring the korban in the way that G-d has prescribed it, namely in the Beis HaMikdash. If we bring it outside of the Beis HaMikdash, it will not be accepted, we will not be reprieved and we will be responsible, so to speak, for taking our own lives. That is the meaning of the words “Dam yechashev la’ish hahu, dam shafach” (Vayikra 17:4 and Rashi there): it shall be considered as if we shed our own blood.


“Every person must respect his mother and father and keep my Sabbath” (Vayikra 19:3). What is the connection between honoring one’s parents and keeping Shabbos? There are three partners in the creation of a person: G-d, ones father and ones mother (Kiddushin 30b). How does one make G-d visible in this triangle of birth? By observing Shabbos we bear testimony to the fact that G-d did not become an absentee parent after our birth. “G-d’s acts of kindness have not ceased, His mercies have not been exhausted, they are renewed every morning” (Eicha 3:22-23).

Kedoshim tiheyu ki kadosh Ani – you must be holy since I am holy” (Vayikra 19:2).

The word kadosh has the numerical value of 410, corresponding to the period of time that the first Temple existed. During this time, G-d’s holiness was visible for all to see through the ten miracles that occurred in the Temple (Avos 5:7). During the time of the second Temple, G-d’s presence, albeit extant, was no longer as visible. The difference between G-d’s presence during the era of the first Temple and the second Temple was like the difference between the Torah She Bichtav, the Written Torah, and the Torah She Ba’al Peh, the Oral Torah. The Written Torah is intrinsically holy. It is there for all to see. To read it, you don’t have to work so hard. During the era of the second Temple, the Rabbis elucidated the sometimes cryptic words of the Torah She Bichtav by means of the thirteen methods of interpretation of the Torah She Ba’al Peh.

The Torah She Ba’al Peh, which is the less accessible of the two, requires that we apply ourselves and immerse ourselves in its intricacies. In so doing, we rediscover the light of G-d which was hidden with the destruction of the first Temple and by so doing, we ourselves become holy. It is as if G-d’s whole purpose in showing us His holiness during the time of the first Temple was to teach us how to emulate Him and become holy ourselves by studying the Torah She Ba’al Peh during the time of the second Temple. It is like the light of the first night of Chanuka. There was no miracle on the first night because there was sufficient oil to burn for one day. The miracle began on the second night. But the purpose of kindling the light on the first night of Chanuka is to teach us that what we call nature, the burning of the oil on the first day, is a miracle too. As Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa said to his daughter who accidentally poured vinegar into the lamp and lit the Shabbos candles with it, “the one who commanded the oil to burn can command the vinegar to burn as well” (Ta’anis 25a).

And that was the miracle of the second temple. The light of the Torah She Ba’al Peh burned for 421 years, equivalent to the numerical value of the word tiheyu.


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Raphael Grunfeld received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Rav Dovid Feinstein. A partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, Rabbi Grunfeld is the author of “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” and “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed.” Questions for the author can be sent to [email protected].