By Rabbi Marc Israel
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27.
Back when we were able to visit in one another’s homes, sometimes I would tell a friend or congregant to “Come by anytime!” I sincerely intended this as an expression of warmth, intending to convey that they are always welcome. But without designating a time, I came to realize that such an invitation can be empty, like calling out to a passing friend along the Towpath, “Let’s have coffee!” while knowing it was unlikely such a date would come to fruition. Setting a specific time indicates an invitation is both sincere and important.
This week God tells Moshe to warn Aharon not to enter the inner sanctum of the mishkan “b’chol et” — at any time. According to Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, “Moshe was greatly distressed by this. He said: ‘Oy! Perhaps Aharon my brother has been driven out from the inner space at all times!’”
Moshe heard “b’chol et” as an absolute prohibition. But, the midrash goes on to explain that “et” (time) is non-specific term and is used in various places of Tanakh to refer to a specific hour, day, year, set of years or all eternity. Rather, the midrash teaches, God said to Moshe that Aharon may enter at anytime, but “he must do it with the following procedure…” wearing the specified bells and pomegranates.
But according to the 18th century rabbi Ohr HaChayim, the prohibition to enter at “anytime” was actually an invitation to enter at a specific time. He explains that if Aharon “refrained from entering the Holy of Holies during the rest of the year, he would merit entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. If, however, he were to enter the Holy of Holies during any other period, he would forfeit the opportunity of entering it on the Day of Atonement.”
Furthermore, he explains, the Torah use b’chol et (at any time) to indicate that even on Yom Kippur, he could only enter that sacred space for the specific purpose of performing the unique Yom Kippur offerings that we re-enact each year in the Avodah service on Yom Kippur.
What first seemed like a broad prohibition or, at the very least, a severe limitation, is actually a specific invitation. By designating one time a year, and one time only, for Aharon to enter the Holy of Holies, God indicates the importance of that particular date, making the invitation more meaningful and not restrictive.
This passage was particularly striking to me this year, given that we have been prohibited from entering our sacred spaces to worship due to the pandemic. It has been more than 13 months since the members of our synagogue have worshiped in our holy sanctuary. We have always known that God will hear our sincerely offered prayers from wherever we are. We have learned that this can even be true when we gather virtually via Zoom or livestreaming. But in the prohibition from entering our holy space, we have also rediscovered its importance in our lives.
Many synagogues that were shuttered throughout the pandemic, including mine, now are preparing to gather indoors again. When we do, there will likely be limited numbers of congregants asked to enter in a specific manner — registering ahead of time, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. As this happens, I pray that the specificity of the time and manner in which we gather will not feel overly restrictive or stifling but will help us understand the sacred import of this moment.
Rabbi Marc Israel is the rabbi at Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, which will open this Shabbat for indoor services for the first time in 13 months.