The first parsha we read this week, Aharei Mot, takes its name from a reference to the death of the sons of Aaron, who brought a “strange fire” into the Holy of Holies. The parsha begins with the laws governing the high priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur, which are followed, one chapter later, by a list of illicit sexual relations. What is the connection between the death of Aaron’s sons, the Yom Kippur rites, and the prohibition on uncovering the nakedness of various individuals? And how can the juxtaposition of laws about sacred space and sexuality speak to the sanctification of intimacy in our own lives?
We might start by looking to the Yom Kippur liturgy, where the two parts of our parsha are also juxtaposed. The first part, about the death of Aaron’s sons and the priestly rituals of Yom Kippur, are chanted as the Torah reading on the morning of Yom Kippur; the second part of the parsha, about forbidden sexual relations, is the afternoon reading, as prescribed in the Talmud (Megillah 31a). Rashi comments that the afternoon reading was chosen so as to warn people not to sleep with those who are forbidden to them, because sexual sin is so prevalent. This does not explain why this reading was chosen for Yom Kippur in particular, and here Tosafot step in, explaining that women dress up on Yom Kippur and so it is especially important to warn men not to succumb to their wiles. According to this understanding, the afternoon reading was not chosen simply because it follows the morning reading in the Torah, but because it serves as a much-needed warning on this particular day. Yet shouldn’t this kind of sin be furthest from our mind on Yom Kippur, a day on which all sexual intercourse is forbidden? A close reading of our parsha suggests otherwise.
The beginning of the parsha draws a connection between the death of Aaron’s sons and the prohibition on entering the Holy of Holies “at all times” (16:2). Since God appears in a cloud in the Holy of Holies, Aaron must enter only when specifically authorized to do so, which, as we learn from the end of the chapter, was “in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month” (16:29), namely Yom Kippur. When entering the Holy of Holies, Aaron had to first bathe and dress in specific sacred vestments, bearing specific sacrificial offerings to atone for himself, his household, and the whole congregation of Israel. These detailed instructions, following immediately after the reference to the death of Aaron’s sons, suggest that Nadav and Avihu failed to observe the highly specific regulations governing entry into the Holy of Holies, whether by entering at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes, or bearing the wrong sacrifices.
The Talmud adds that the entry into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur was a moment of such trepidation that the High Priest would make sure to offer only a short prayer (Yoma 52b), lest the people waiting outside grow frightened that something terrible had befallen him inside the sacred precinct. Since only the High Priest could enter, the maintenance of the Holy of Holies posed a particular challenge; how could anyone get inside to clean it out? The Mishnah (Middot 4:5) relates that there were trapdoors in an upper chamber opening into the Holy of Holies by which workmen were let down in baskets so that they would not “feast their eyes on the Holy of Holies.” This most sacred chamber of the Temple was a place of highly restricted access, with very specific rules governing who might enter and when.
It is against this backdrop that we can read the laws of forbidden sexual relations in our parsha, which are also about restricted access. Just as it was forbidden for the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies “at all times,” it is also forbidden—by the laws of Niddah—for a man to sleep with a woman “at all times.” And just as not anyone could enter the Holy of Holies, so too not anyone is permitted sexually to everyone else. A man may not sleep with his mother, or his father’s wife, or his son’s daughter, etc. The Torah uses the phrase “uncovering the nakedness” to describe these prohibitions, reminiscent of the prohibition on the workers “feasting their eyes” on the sacred shrine. Not everything is meant to be flaunted and out in the open; the most sacred spaces, like the most sacred connections, are for certain individuals only. Perhaps this is why the Talmud, in describing the plundering of the Temple by the Romans (Gittin 56b), relates that Titus entered the sacred shrine and committed an act of rape – suggesting that violating the Temple, for the rabbis, was as much an abomination as violating a woman.
Of course, the gendered language of these texts may seem foreign if not outright offensive to our modern sensibilities. The priest is always male, and the Torah’s laws about uncovering nakedness are addressed to men alone. But to dismiss these texts on account of their sexist rhetoric is to ignore their message for our own time, when we aspire to more egalitarian relationships. Yom Kippur, a day of supreme intimacy between human beings and God, is an occasion to focus on other intimate connections as well. As Bonna Devora Haberman z”l has eloquently argued, entry into the Holy of Holies can be a model for sexual intimacy, which should not take place at any time, with any person. The rabbinic term for marriage—the exclusive partnership between two individuals—is “Kiddushin,” meaning sanctity. The Yom Kippur rites, with their emphasis on exclusivity and restricted access to sacred space, precede the laws of forbidden sexual relations to remind us we can elevate our most intimate relationships to the level of the sacred.