"The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD." —Leviticus 16:1
The Torah portion for this week is a double reading, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, from Leviticus 16:1—20:27. Acharei Mot means “after the death,” and Kedoshim means “holy.” The Haftorah is from Amos 9:7–15.
There are many stories about people having a “near-death experience,” and although each person tells a slightly different tale about his or her experience, there are some elements that almost all have in common. One is seeing some kind of light that beckons to them and gives them a sense of peace, pleasure, and well-being. Many individuals said they felt torn between moving into the heavenly light and returning to their earthly bodies. At our core then, it would seem that we are souls more than beings, and souls want to be close to God.
This week’s reading (a double portion) begins with a reference to the death of Aaron’s sons: “The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD.” As the verse indicates, the death of Aaron’s sons had something to do with their coming close to God. The Jewish sages explain that the two men came so close to the Lord that they simply couldn’t stay in their bodies. Their souls were drawn to God’s holiness, and they could no longer tolerate their physical bodies.
The name of the first portion we read this week is called Acharei Mot, meaning “after the death,” referring to Aaron’s sons. By calling the portion by this title – one that recalls the tragic result of coming too close to God – the rabbis seem to be issuing a warning. Life is meant to be lived on earth and there is a danger in trying to escape the physicality that our earthly life entails. God could have chosen to keep our souls in heaven – in a completely spiritual realm. But He chose to send us to live on earth because it is here that we can fulfill our mission.
On the other hand, a purely physical life is also not ideal. The second Torah portion that we read this week is called Kedoshim, meaning “holy.” The reading begins, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy’” (Leviticus 19:2). Even though God placed us in a physical world, it is our duty to live a life of holiness. We are required to infuse our physical lives with spiritual meaning and dedicate our physical actions to God’s holy purposes. A purely material world is never what God intended. The physical world is meant to be the springboard that propels us toward God.
Taken together, both of these readings encourage us to find a balance – between reaching toward heaven and staying grounded on earth. Either extreme can be dangerous. It’s the place in between the two that allows us to have lives rich in meaning, purpose, and contribution.