This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot (Lev. 16:1 – 18:30) begins by mentioning the death of the two eldest sons of Aaron, who brought “strange fire” before God, and died in the Holy of Holies at the time of the dedication of the Tabernacle. The text then turns to the laws of annual purification and expiation of sin which will in time become the Yom Kippur ritual, followed by laws about eating meat, and laws about sexual intercourse.
One possible inference from this sequence is that Nadav and Abihu committed a violation which cost them their lives, and the Torah is taking care to be sure that no other lives are lost for the same reason. Adherence to God’s laws is necessary to maintain a distance between the holy and the mundane. However, a verse in this Torah portion points out that there can also be danger in adhering too closely to the law. Lev. 18:5 reads, “You shall keep my laws and rules which, if people do, they will live in them”. Later Jewish law (halacha) has used this verse as the basis for the rule of pekuach nefesh, that Jewish law should be broken when keeping it endangers a human life. Rabbi Leo Baeck commented on this passage, “The great commandment is to live”.
At this time of Passover, we are commanded to remove all leavened items from our homes and from our diets. We restrict ourselves from forbidden foods for the eight days of the festival, and there is holiness in the restriction. But let us not become so concerned about what we will and will not eat that it creates a barrier to our enjoyment of this festival of freedom. May Passover be a reminder of the liberation of our people from slavery in Egypt and a call to liberation for all peoples of the world. And may your observance come close to what God asks of us, but not too close.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach,