Parashat Aharei Mot II

Friday, May 3, 2019 /28 Nisan, 5779
Parashat Aharei Mot II Leviticus 18:1-18:30

Dear Friends,

It is not uncommon for a bride to wear her special wedding dress only once, and then to tuck it away in a box for decades, perhaps to be worn by a daughter or granddaughter, or not unlikely, to be sold at a resale shop. After all, what can one do with such a special garment?

The same question appears in our Torah portion this week. What is done with the special garments which the High Priest wore only for the special Yom Kippur ritual in antiquity? Note what the Torah indicates Aaron, the High Priest, would do following the key ritual, “And Aaron shall go into the Tent of Meeting, take off the linen vestments that he put on when he entered the Shrine, and leave them there.” (Lev 16:23)

The phrase, “and leave them there,” has puzzled readers and commentators for centuries. What was Aaron to do with the special clothing, or, what was to be done with the clothing, at all? Were they just to lay in the Tent of Meeting, perhaps on a bench, ad infinitum? Was another priest to come and clean them and set them aside until the next Yom Kippur? Or, were they to be discarded, destroyed, burned or buried?

Essentially, if a garment bears such unique, once-in-a-lifetime merit or sanctity – such as the priestly vestments or the beautiful wedding dress – how do we maintain it, and can it be used again, without limiting or demeaning its original value?

Rashi, our medieval Torah commentator, taught that “and leave them there” meant exactly that – that the garments must be left and not reused for another Yom Kippur, building on a decision he rendered in the Talmud.  In the Babylonian Talmud, (Yoma 12b), we read that Rabbi Dosa states that the garments must be hidden, and not used on another Yom Kippur, in that items and people should only ascend in holiness, not descend, and reusing the garments would constitute descending.

In Rabbi Dosa’s principle, we find a worthy answer and message. If there is no higher possible purpose for an item, it can, and ought to be retired. But, if there is a way that an item can either be elevated in meaning, or can elevate a person in purpose and meaning, then it should be retained and reused. Hence, American Presidents may use George Washington’s Bible for taking their oaths. And, daughters might wear their mothers’ dresses.  And, I use my grandparents’ Kiddush cup.

It is a fascinating conversation.  What might we have in our lives which elevates our sacredness? What might we have which have reached their pinnacles, and we ought to “leave them there?”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Doug Kohn