Sunday, May 5, 2019

Parashat Aharei Mot: Sacred & Profane

Sacred & Profane
Thoughts on Parashat Aharei Mot 2019
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The Halakhah has never despaired of man, either as a natural being integrated into his physical environment, or as a spiritual personality confronting God.
(R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik)[1]

And he [Aharon] shall take two he-goats for an offense offering…And he shall take the two goats and set them before God at the entrance to Ohel Mo’ed. And he shall put lots on the two goats, one for God and one for Azazel… (VaYikra 16:5-8)
The beginning of Parashat Aharei Mot details God’s command to Aharon that he separate two goats (se’irim) for the avodah of Yom Kippur. He repeatedly referred to them as a single unit – “two goats,” and commanded that they be set together at the entrance of Ohel Mo’ed. The Hakhamim thus understood that the complete procedure of each goat was dependent upon the fulfillment of the other, and that the chosen goats were to ideally appear the same.[2] Chosen by lots, however, the destiny of the respective goats was far from the same:
And Aharon shall bring forward the goat for which the lot for God comes up, and he shall make it an offense offering. And the goat for which the lot for Azazel comes up shall be set live before God to atone upon it, to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness. (9-11)
Whereas the goat “for God” was sacrificed to Him in the Mishkan, the goat “for Azazel” was sent off alive into the wilderness. Significantly, however, even the process of the goat for Azazel – in the wilderness, far from the Mishkan – was described as taking place “before God.” What message was God sending with his command of this enigmatic process of “the two goats” on Yom Kippur?

Human beings naturally tend toward a dualistic understanding of existence. We distinguish between the physical and spiritual domains of life, viewing them as separate realities with little in common. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l argued against this contention, writing:
The Halakhah believes that there is only one world – not divisible into secular and hallowed sectors – which can either plunge into ugliness and hatefulness, or be roused to meaningful, redeeming activity, gathering up all latent powers into a state of holiness.[3]
According to R. Soloveitchik, Halakhah sets forth a vision of the world through monistic lenses, dismissing the absolute division of kodesh and hol.

Indeed, R. Hayim of Volozhin z”l commented on a classic debate about whether humans or angels are greater, suggesting that while an angel might in fact be “holier” in essence, a person possesses the significant advantage of being able to “elevate and interconnect the worlds.” God’s words, “I have given you the ability to move among these stationary ones” (Zekhariah 3:7) best describe this difference – whereas angels can solely operate in realms of sanctity – as “stationary” beings, man has the unique ability to unify the seemingly “holy” and “profane” through his “movement” between worlds.[4] The unique task of human beings, then, is to seek out and establish the unity between these seemingly disparate aspects of life by realizing the meaning and sanctity in every aspect of existence.

R. Hayim z”l furthermore suggested that the fatal flaw of the dor ha-mabul – the generation prior to Noah – lay in their inability to perceive sanctity in the physical. He thus explained God’s rationale, “My breath (ruhi) shall not abide in the human forever, for he is but flesh” (Bereshit 6:3), as a description of their failure to find the spiritual (“my breath”) amidst the physical (“flesh”).[5]

The two goats of the Yom Kippur service exemplified the Torah’s version of existence. Although their fate appeared entirely different – one slaughtered in the Mishkan and the other set forth alive in the wilderness – they were, in reality, playing parallel roles in a destiny of “standing before God.” The message to us, in turn, is that our mission on the streets and in the workplace is the same as that in the synagogue and bet midrash. While the environment of our day-to-day life continuously shifts, the two se’irim remind us that “standing before God” is a constant.

[1] “Catharsis,” in Confrontation and Other Essays (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg. 41.
[2] Sifra Aharei Mot 2:1.
[3] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New Milford, CT, 2012), pg. 58.
[4] R. Hayim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaHayim 1:10.
[5] R. Hayim of Volozhin, Ruah Hayim 3:1.