Parashat Acharei Mot
This week’s parashah describes the ceremonial procedure of the first Yom Kippur in the mishkan. Although we think of Yom Kippur as a yearly day of atonement, in the Torah, Yom Kippur is framed as a reaction to a very specific incident, the sin and death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s eldest sons. The death of Nadav and Avihu is not only tragic, but also mystifying. Why is God so enraged by their offering of a strange fire? Why does the fact that it was not requested make it so loathed? Were they not trying to come close to God? Is this not a gift?! The death of Nadav and Avihu is also deeply personal for us. We want to feel that we can be religiously creative, that we can bring God more than what God asks. When Nadav and Avihu die as a result of this attitude, it is terrifying because we identify with them. Nadav and Avihu are us. Not only that, but we identify them with the most religious version of ourselves, who we are when we want to meet God with genuine enthusiasm. Their death is both haunting and destabilizing.