Acharei Mot -- Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30

CoverDesign_AchareiMot"After the ecstasy, the laundry!"

This insight by renowned author and teacher of meditation, Jack Kornfield, co-founder of Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California, encapsulates the challenge of daily spiritual practice. In his bestselling book of the same title, Kornfield offers a uniquely intimate understanding of how the modern spiritual journey unfolds — and most importantly, how we can prepare our hearts for awakening. Kornfield argues that the enlightened heart navigates the real world of family relationships, emotional pain, earning a living, sickness, loss, and death.

Commentators have long been puzzled by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Were these two brothers and young Turk priests focused on ecstatic religious experience to a fault? The ecstatic enigma first seen in Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47) here returns to the sobering lesson behind this episode. Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta. Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who locate in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. As Kornfield sagely warns, however, sometimes such ecstasy comes at a price.

And the question remains: once the peak experience of ecstasy has been tasted, how does one remain living in the real world -- the one with our laundry? No matter how high the peak experience, we Jews are tasked with living in the world, even if not of it. The expectation of the Tzaddik in Judaism (just like that of the Bodhisattva in Buddhism) is to return from a state of enlightenment to share that light with others.

Understood from the Hasidic perspective, the fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw from rather than engage in the real world, to return with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. The only person authorized entry into the Holy of Holies and grounded enough to process the experience is the High Priest, and even he may only enter once a year to offer the sacred incense of ketoret.

Another aspect of atonement is described through the casting of lots over two goats so as to determine which to serve as a divine offering and which to designate for sins (the scapegoat) and send as an offering to Azazel in the wilderness. How fitting then that this reading is reserved for the High Holiday of Yom Kippur, serving as a perennial reminder of this challenge of grounding our peak, ecstatic experiences into a daily living of our spiritual lives that includes doing the laundry!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the scapegoat ritual. Azazel's goat is led into the remote desert and set free, roaming unseen in the wilds of our psyche and burdened with our missteps and failings. Past deeds, for good or for ill, are not erased by primitive magic; even ignored or forgotten, they inform our actions in the present. The scapegoat's eyes are always on us, and we are not called upon to be perfect (nor to deny our imperfect pasts), but instead to strive to better ourselves and to make the world better through action in it. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.