Parshas Acharei Mos / Passover Edition
During the Second Temple Period (350 BCE - 70 CE) there was a prevalent and powerful heretical sect called the Tzedokim, or Sadducees, who denied the validity of Torah SheBe’al Peh (the Oral Tradition of the Torah), claiming that only the literal meaning of the Torah was binding. This caused them to deviate from Jewish tradition in many areas, including the performance of the Yom Kippur service as is delineated in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Acharei-Mos.
There the Torah says (Leviticus 16:2): “For with the [incense] cloud I am [allowed to be] seen upon the Ark-cover (i.e. in the Holy of Holies). The Sadducees took this to mean that the High Priest had to place the incense on the fire before he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, thus fulfilling the literal meaning of the verse which indicates that the High Priest is only allowed to walk in and “see G-d” with the already prepared incense cloud.
But the tradition transmitted from Moses at Mount Sinai teaches that only after he enters the Holy of Holies is the High Priest to place the incense on the fire and create the cloud, as is indicated in a different verse in the Torah portion which says (ibid. 16:3): “And he shall put incense on the fire ‘before G-d’, i.e. in the Holy of Holies.
The Midrash (see Toras Kohanim on Acharei-Mos) tells us that the Sadducees were not basing their viewpoint on Scripture alone. They reasoned from logic that if when serving food to a human being, it is proper and respectful to prepare the food outside the room where he is sitting and only then to place it “ready-made” in front of him, how much more so when ‘serving’ incense to G-d Al-mighty, that the High Priest should first prepare the incense by placing it on the coals outside the Holy of Holies and only then enter with the ready-made cloud of incense.
The Sadducees seem to have a good point. After all, it certainly seems to make more sense for the High Priest to finish preparing the incense before entering the Holy of Holies. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, we don’t find any response to the Sadducees’ logical challenge in the traditional sources.
I once heard a fantastic answer in the name of Rabbi Moshe Wolfson shlit”a, a prominent rabbi and spiritual leader in Brooklyn, NY. He explained that the logic of the Sadducees was faulty because they failed to appreciate the true nature of our relationship with G-d. They saw G-d as a distant ruler Who controls the world from afar and has no intimate connection with His subjects. For such a king, one should certainly prepare the incense outside the Holy of Holies, just as is the protocol when serving any human being.
However, there is one relationship between human beings in which the ‘rules’ are not strictly adhered to – and that is the relationship between husband and wife. In such a relationship, the couple will often do away with formalities and protocol because of their great love for each other.
What led the Sadducees to their erroneous conclusion is that they didn’t comprehend that the relationship that we have with G-d is akin to that of a loving husband and wife. In such a love relationship, ‘formalities’ aren’t followed and aren’t necessary. The Torah thus instructed the High Priest to prepare the incense inside the Holy of Holies – although it is ‘against protocol’ – to let us know that He loves us so much and that it’s perfectly okay for the High Priest to come in to His inner chambers and finish the preparation of the incense right there in front of Him.
These two radically different ways of understanding the nature of our relationship with G-d - that of the Sadducees and that of the traditional Sages - have carried on throughout history and are prevalent in our own times as well. There are some Jews who see G-d as a distant, impersonal and controlling ruler. Others see Him as a personal G-d Who deeply cares about His people and wants to have a relationship with us.
And these outlooks manifest themselves in our attitudes toward ritual observance as well. Some view the mitzvos that we are commanded to do as G-d’s way of ‘controlling’ us, while others see them as an outgrowth of His great love and care for us.
In 1965, the pre-eminent social scientist Charles S. Liebman published a pioneering essay Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life in the American Jewish Year Book, which illustrates this point exactly. He wrote: “The observance of mikveh (the “Family Purity Laws’), which requires that a married woman go to a ritual bath around twelve days after menstruation, before which she is prohibited from having marital relations, is the single best measure for determining who is a committed Orthodox Jew. To the uncommitted, it is inconceivable that so personal a matter should be subject to ritual regulation. To the committed, it is inconceivable that an aspect of life so important as marital relations should not be subject to halakhic regulation.”
So what does all this have to do with Passover, you ask?
You see, underneath all that Matzah, Bitter Herbs and Charoses, Passover is really a celebration of our love relationship with G-d. In fact, it is the very basis of our entire religion and covenant with G-d.
The prophet Ezekiel describes with great imagery how the Jewish people were “born” in Egypt and how G-d took care of us and fell in love with us and chose us to be His people forever: “And as for your birth, on the day you were born, your navel was not cut, neither were you washed with water for cleansing, nor were you salted, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied you [enough] to do for you any of those, to have mercy on you, and you were cast on the open field in the loathsomeness of your body on the day you were born. And I passed by you and saw you downtrodden with your blood, and I said to you, 'With your blood, live,' … And I passed by you and saw you, and behold your time was the time of love, and I spread My skirt over you, and I covered your nakedness, and I swore to you and came into a covenant with you, says the Lord, and you were Mine. (Ezekiel 16:4-8).
Passover is the night when we remind ourselves – through the eating of the Matzah and Bitter Herbs and the retelling of the story of our tortuous enslavement in Egypt and how G-d lovingly redeemed us – that G-d truly loves us and cares for us and wants us to be His. [Many even have a custom to read the "Song of Songs" – one of the Books of Scripture authored by King Solomon and the ultimate ‘love story’ between G-d and the Jewish people – at the end of the long Passover Seder.]
Only 49 days after Passover, when we were redeemed from Egypt, we celebrate the holiday of Shavuos, when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai.
These two major holidays are inextricably linked through the mitzvah of “Counting the Omer”. As the Torah tells us: “You shall count for yourselves – from the day after Shabbos, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving – seven weeks, they shall be complete” (Leviticus 23:15). This is the Biblical commandment to count 49 days from the Exodus from Egypt, which took place on Passover, until the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which took place on Shavuos.
This mitzvah serves to underscore the traditional Jewish belief that it is because of G-d’s great love for us - as exhibited by the miracles that He performed in Egypt on our behalf – that He brought us to Mount Sinai only 49 days later where we received the ultimate gift of love – His Holy Torah with all its beautiful instructions for living.
Interestingly, the term “from the day after Shabbos” in the verse above became another major point of controversy between the Sages and the heretical Sadducees. The Sadducees interpreted the term “Shabbos” literally, as referring to the Sabbath (which meant practically that they would begin counting the Omer each year on the Sunday following the Shabbos that fell on Passover), whereas the Sages had a reliable tradition from Moses that in this verse the Torah was referring to the first day of Passover, which is called “Shabbos” because ordinary work is forbidden on it (which meant that they would begin counting the Omer on the night following the Passover Seder, the practice followed by all Jews today).
For the Sadducees, who viewed the Torah and its many mitzvos as emanating from an impersonal G-d Who has no intimate relationship with His subjects, there was no direct connection between the miracles of Egypt and the Receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – so they started counting from Sunday, disconnected from the Passover Seder and the miracles of the Exodus.
However, the Sages understood that it was due to G-d’s great love for us as shown to us in Egypt that He gave us the Torah at Sinai – thus the tradition teaches that the mitzvah of counting the days until Shavuos begins the night after the Passover Seder.
May G-d bless all of us as we sit down for yet another Passover Seder with friends and family this year, recounting all the amazing miracles that He performed and continues to perform for us, that we should be able to feel the love that G-d has for us and to appreciate how fortunate we are to have His Torah and all its beautiful mitzvos in our lives.
HAVE A HAPPY AND MEANINGFUL PASSOVER!