“I visualize what it is, not what is isn’t” – Nas

The first pasuk (verse) of this week’s parashah, Acharei Mot, reads: 

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר הֹ’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י מ֔וֹת שְׁנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן בְּקרְבָתָ֥ם לִפְנֵי־ה’ וַיָּמֻֽתוּ

Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons [Nadav and Avihu], who drew close to Hashem and died.1 

Or HaChayim explains that the sins of Nadav and Avihu were very different than sins as we generally understand them. He explains that their sin involved allowing themselves to cling to Hashem so totally that their souls simply left their bodies. It’s written “who drew close to Hashem and died” because it was the drawing close in the way they had that caused their death.2

We are tasked with reaching towards hispashtut hagashmiyut, divesting oneself of materiality.3 But this spiritual ascent must be balanced. There is the concept of ratzo ve’shov, which means to run and to return. That ratzo must always be coupled with shov. Ratzo being the state of dveykut (longing to cleave to Hashem), the insatiable desire of the neshama (soul) to transcend its material existence, to “run forward” and cling and cleave to its Source. Shov is the neshama’s awakening and determination to “return” and to fulfill its mission, using the body, making the physical world a dwelling for Hashem. This explains Chazal’s statement, “Against your will, you live.”4  As much as our souls yearn to leave our bodies, it is our mission to fulfill the task that can only be done when the soul uses and elevates the body. Nadav and Avihu’s sin was abandoning the shov, the mission of this world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that their yearning was not balanced with a commitment to worldly service.5 

We might not have the same struggle on the level of worrying about our souls ascending so high so as not to return to its body or our physical existence, but in our own world, we need to balance our spiritual and material pursuits. As it’s stated in the Talmud, just as we are amply rewarded for performing avodat (in service of) Hashem, so too, at times we are rewarded for refraining – if what we’re looking to attain is beyond our spiritual grasp.6  As we can all feel, everything, especially wellness, is about balance. But how do we find balance? How do we control our thoughts, lessening our anxiety and being more present…? Anxiety is born of worry of what might be. Faith is trusting the process and future while focusing on the moment. 

I post photos of moments when I’m elated being around my kids and watching how much of life they are loving. It’s almost ironic snapping a photo, because it breaks the moment for a second, but I want to capture them and these priceless memories. Often I’ll post them later to my social media with the caption, “life can be so precious, when you’re present.” Even taking a photo can be a way of being present, not just appreciating a moment but taking action inspired by how in it we really are. So many other moments we are present in our body, but our mind is somewhere else. Balance is about being present. When we start to drift to the future or past or the “what ifs” and “shouldn’t haves,” that breeds anxiety and takes away from enjoying the short amount of time we are gifted in this world to find and create our purpose, and to shine and share light and love.

Easier said than done. Anxiety is so prevalent throughout humanity and rears its ugly head in so many different ways, crippling in more extreme circumstances. In those moments, it seems we all share a sort of long term memory loss, that actually we have gotten through to the other side, each time. Our mantra to strengthen this truth and those memories should be that whatever is for you will manifest. 

Because if things are bitter in the moment or might turn sour in the near future, what is often followed down the line is an epiphany and the clarity of why it wasn’t for you is in full sight. That’s why the saying ‘hindsight is 20/20’ is so popular, because when we are uncertain and faithless, we can’t see what’s meant for us with any sort of clarity – we are far from 20/20 when in that space. But as time passes, we often clearly see that everything played out as it was meant to. The saying means: It’s easier to analyze and evaluate situations clearly when we’re looking back on them in the past than when we’re in the present moment.

Last week, we read about the two birds in the purification of metzora atoning for lashon hara (negative speech). One for taharah (purity) and the other is sent away. This week in parashah Acharei Mot, we read about the se-irim (translated as goats, hairy male goats, goat-demons, or in this case scapegoats) for Yom Kippur— one is for Hashem and the second for Azazel. This happens after the Kohen Gadol (high priest) bathes and puts on sacred linen garments, as it’s written:

וְלָקַ֖ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֣י הַשְּׂעִירִ֑ם וְהֶעֱמִ֤יד אֹתָם֙ לִפְנֵ֣י ה’ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד . וְנָתַ֧ן אַהֲרֹ֛ן עַל־שְׁנֵ֥י הַשְּׂעִירִ֖ם גֹּרָל֑וֹת גּוֹרָ֤ל אֶחָד֙ לַה’ וְגוֹרָ֥ל אֶחָ֖ד לַעֲזָאזֵֽל . וְהִקְרִ֤יב אַהֲרֹן֙ אֶת־הַשָּׂעִ֔יר אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָלָ֥ה עָלָ֛יו הַגּוֹרָ֖ל לַה’ וְעָשָׂ֖הוּ חַטָּֽאת . וְהַשָּׂעִ֗יר אֲשֶׁר֩ עָלָ֨ה עָלָ֤יו הַגּוֹרָל֙ לַעֲזָאזֵ֔ל יעֳמַד־חַ֛י לִפְנֵ֥י ה’ לְכַפֵּ֣ר

Then he shall take the two se-irim and stand them in front of God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  And Aaron shall place lots on the two se-irim: one lot for God and one lot for Azazel.  Then Aaron shall bring forward the sa-ir for which the lot for God came up, and he shall make it the reparation-offering.  And the sa-ir for which the lot for Azazel came up, it shall stand alive in front of God, to make atonement upon it. And he shall send it to Azazel in the wilderness.7

As we read, one of the se’irim would be elevated as a holy sacrifice and the other sent to the desert to die. Sforno explains that the one that carries all the sins of B’nei Yisrael is not fit to be sacrificed because of the amount of tumah (impurity) it carries. In a general sense or what is looked at as karma, punishment is the consequence of sin, as is stated in Yirmiyahu, “Your own wickedness will punish you.”8  That is if actions in teshuva (return, repentance) and actions in taharah are not taken. The se’irim serve two purposes, one is to transfer the impurities of the person to the animal which releases the person from the punishment that karma brings. The sa’ir (goat) that is sacrificed in the Beit HaMikdash atones for deliberate sins related to the Beit Hamikdash, but the sa’ir for Azazel (also called the goral, the lot that is cast) carries with it the rest of the sins of B’nei Yisrael.

As it’s written:

And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the living sa-ir, and he shall confess over it all the crimes of the Israelites and all their transgressions for all their wrongdoing, and he shall place them on the head of the sa-ir, and send it by the hand of a designated man into the wilderness.  Then the sa-ir will carry off all the crimes on itself to a cut-off land; he shall send out the sa-ir into the wilderness.9

Some commentators point to the similarity in name and the allusions to Mount Seir, the home of Eisav and the sair. The bird last week and the sair in this week’s parashah that are sent away as a sort of gift to the forces of tumah (impurity), which are personified by Eisav and his שר (sar) – the angel associated with him. The Abarbanel teaches that the two se’irim symbolize the eternal struggle between Yaakov and Eisav.

Last week, we covered the difference between nega (disease, נגע) and oneg (pleasure, ענג), and that in the word nega (נגע), you see the ayin (ע) is on the left and for oneg (ענג), the ayin (ע) is on the right. The balance between left and right is what brings harmony, and so when we lead with the left side, the side of gevurah (judgment), we find ourself in nega (disease, נגע), the lowest form of life experience, but when we lead with the right side, as the Rebbe Rashab taught the Frierdiker Rebbe, if we lead with chesed (loving-kindness), which is when we tap into the right side of the sefirot and our own beings, and look through the right eye, so to speak, the ayin (ע) of goodness leads. In the body, we can see it as when we learn to balance the left arm (gevurah) and the right arm (chesed), we can find harmony (tiferet), which is associated with the heart.

All the stories of the Torah are actually the stories in our own lives as well. We are all microcosms of the universe, these stories playing out inside of us, just as we play out life as a story in the expanse of reality. We all have Eisav and Yaakov in us, their struggle is our own. We need to defeat the parts that are Eisav’s within us all, and the two birds and the two goats are manifestations of both this struggle and steps towards its rectification and elevation. 

We learn in the Talmud that the mitzvah is to take two goats that are similar in age, height and appearance.10 Reb Natan of Breslov teaches that regardless of their being almost identical, one is dedicated to Hashem and the other to Azazel. And in a similar fashion, falsehood and truth can sometimes seem identical, being hard to differentiate. Se’IRim (שעירים) represents Sei’AR (hair, שער), reminding us that a hairsbreadth is all that separates between holiness and its opposite.11  And in the same way we relied on Hashem for which goat was for holiness and which for the Sitra Achra (the Other Side), we need to pray for the same clarity for Hashem to show us the difference between falsehood and truth.12

Everything in this world has the power for good or for evil, for elevation or degradation, just as we read about with the two goats. Even with air and breathing there is kedushah and sitra achra, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that there are two “lifelines” that we can draw in when breathing in air, one is the lifeline of kedusha, the other is of tumah. The righteous draw in pure air, while the evil draw in impure air. To survive, we need to draw air from one of these two channels. When a person regrets their misdeeds and decides to do teshuva, they sever their link with the impure source of air and begin to breathe fresh, new air from the source of holiness.13 As we learn in Talmud Yuma, “When one repents out of love, his sins become like merits.”14 

So much of staying grounded in truth and being balanced is letting go of all the cacophony that surrounds and tries to distort being truly present in the experiences and moments we find ourselves in. The power of niggunim (melodies), when sung in a group of people, is that when we use our breath to connect making music with the instrument that sustains us (our breath/voice), we connect to our essence and the essence of those around us. It’s a moment when we shift from thinking or over thinking, to letting go of the extraneous and bringing our breath outward to awaken our soul, we tend to lose ourselves while inspiring ourselves at the same time.

I’ll leave you off with what feels like a mantra to me, it’s Pharrell on his song, “ESP”:

Detach yourself (let go, let go, let go, let go, let go)
Re-pack yourself
Be back yourself (let go, let go, let go, let go, let go)
And dream as yourself
Be seen as yourself (let go, let go, let go, let go, let go)
Beam as yourself
Scream as yourself (let go, let go, let go, let go, let go)
And be king of yourself
15

 

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Notes & Sources

  1. Levitikus 16:1
  2. Or HaChayim in his commentary on the beginning of Acharei Mot
  3. Shulchan Aruch HaRav , the conclusion of section 98
  4. Pirkei Avot 4
  5. An Anthology of Talks, Likkutei Sichos p. 98
  6. Talmud Pesachim 22b
  7. Leviticus 16:7-10
  8. Jeremiah 2:19
  9. Leviticus 16:21-22
  10. Talmud Yoma 62a
  11. Likutey Halachot I p. 194
  12. Likutey Halachot IV, p. 416
  13. Likutey Moharan I, 109:1
  14. Talmud Yoma 86b
  15. ‘ESP” song by N.E.R.D.

Light of Infinite is a book series (coming soon), a podcast, and a weekly Dvar (digital + pamphlets distributed to shull’s in LA). Erez Safar acts as Your Spiritual DJ, curating insights into the weekly Torah portion and the infinite light of Kabbalah.