Parasha Acharei Mot begins with God telling Moses to speak to Aaron after the death of his sons Nadab and Abihu. Aaron is given the instructions for approaching what is described as “the holy” (הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ) which only he can approach at specific times. What follows is the ritual for Yom Kippur and the service of the Kohen Gadol which we recall on Yom Kippur.
There is the prohibition of making sacrifices to other Gods
“And they shall no longer slaughter their sacrifices to the satyrs after which they stray”
There is the total prohibition of the eating of blood, (whoever repeated the blood libel which was hurled at us through the ages could not have read this!)
You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the soul of any flesh is its blood. All who eat it shall be cut off
The final part that we read defines forbidden relations and the warning not to follow those things which previous tenants of the land may have practiced. It is the idea of separateness; to be a people that are somehow different from others. This has always been a challenge; to retain our identity in a constantly changing world.
These things are part of what has become known as the “holiness code” continued in the next Sedra, Kedoshim. Holiness is hard to define or describe. Simply put, it is the opposite to that which is profane or ordinary.
The biblical term for holiness is kodesh, it may apply to a place, an offering or a quality to which we aspire. The English word “holy” derives from the Middle English word “hale” which signified whole, or complete.
Why does the Sedra repeat the story of Nadab and Abihu? Aaron would have been coming to terms with the loss of his sons and, in that earlier reading of Shemini, he stays silent; he is forbidden to mourn. Now he is being directed to an intricate pathway that he and his successors must follow.
How do we come to terms with loss? There is the choice of shrinking into a closed world like a hermit. Some survivors of the Shoah blanked out the past and refused to talk about things. There is also the choice of going forward, engaging the world, secure in not just the practices but also the philosophy of our being Jews.
“U’vaharta bahayyim” (“Choose life”) is one of Moses’s final exhortations to the Israelites. Being part of life and enjoying its blessings and choices may make us “whole”. It may even make us holy!