Maya Zinkow returns this summer as Rosh Nivonim. This summer will be her fourth summer as a Rosh Aidah and her 13th summer at camp! She is finishing up her first year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, and will be spending the next year of her program in Jerusalem. Reflections on Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim by Maya Zinkow
Our parashah begins with a reminder of the horrific event of Nadav and Avihu’s death, when the two brothers and sons of Aaron brought אש זרה׳׳” / eish zarah / a foreign offering, to God. In response, the Torah begins to narrow the scope of what it means to come close to God. We find in parashat Acharei Mot a list of specific rules for when, how, and who, exactly, is permitted to approach God in close proximity. God says to Moshe:
דבר אל אהרון אחיך: ואל יבא בכל עת אל הקדש מבית לפרכת, אל פני הכפרת אשר על הארן, ולא ימות. כי בענן אראה על הכפרת. (ויקרא ט”ז:ב)
“Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover” (Leviticus 16:2).
God limits the time when the כהן גדול / Kohen Gadol / the High Priest, is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies to the day of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in our calendar. In this instructional section, God doesn’t even speak of כהנים / kohanim / priests broadly; here we are dealing only with Aaron. Given the specific nature of the series of laws about how Aaron should approach God, how he should be dressed, and what he should offer, we might feel excluded in reading this week’s parashah. We would be forgiven for asking: what does this have to do with me?
In encountering this text, we might err in making an assumption about our own ability to approach God. After all, we are not all כהנים / kohanim, we do not bring sacrifices to God, every day is not Yom Kippur, and we don’t even have a קדש הקדשים / kodesh hakodashim a Holy of Holies, with the hope of sensing or perhaps even seeing the presence of God. Is this all to say that we, average human beings, should feel wholly limited in our quest to seek out God in our world?
Lest we start asking ourselves these questions, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, also included in this week’s Torah reading, overflow with lists of מצוות / mitzvot / commandments, that help us achieve the holiness that God commands of us: קדושים תהיו! כי קדוש, אני ה׳ אלהיכם׳׳,’’ “You shall be holy! For, I hashem your God, am holy.” These laundry lists of laws act as a holiness guidebook for all of us who find ourselves locked out of that holiest of places, where only Aaron and his descendants are permitted to enter. Some of these laws pose important challenges to us as contemporary Jews, but many lay out ideals of positive social and familial interactions, reiterate our connection to Shabbat, and emphasize our commitment to giving.
This ideal of holiness is something we strive for at camp; in our interactions with friends and counselors, in our communal celebration and observance of Shabbat, and our commitment to treating each other and the world with חסד / chesed / lovingkindness. מצוות are given to empower, not patronize, in our eternal commitment to building communities of holiness. This is a value we instill in our camp community. Camp is a place where, even though we all come from different backgrounds and knowledge levels, any person can feel empowered to exercise leadership. Every summer, campers lead services or read Torah for the first time, perform a musical in Hebrew regardless of varying proficiencies, and give divrei Torah for the first time since their b’nei mitzvah. In creating a space of comfort for everyone who dwells in our summer home, we achieve a sense of true קודש / kodesh / holiness, even without a קודש הקודשים.
Soon, we will welcome Shabbat together in our holiest of homes away from home. Until that time; שבת שלום ומבורך / Shabbat shalom umvorach / a blessed and peaceful Shabbat to all.