The first Yom Kippur was, perhaps, an emergency response to the death of Nadab and Abihu. But the Torah records early developments in the holiday, and aspects of the ritual became a permanent feature of our tradition. How will the emergency procedures responding to COVID endure in the months and years to come?
The Enduring Legacy of Emergency Rituals
As regulars in our Friday morning Torah Study will tell you, Leviticus is my new favorite book of the Torah. If you want to know why … well, come to Torah Study and find out!
Still, I understand why many people—including me until recently—have so much trouble connecting with Leviticus. The book deals in large part with practices and concerns that today’s readers find distasteful to say the least. Moreover, it lacks most of the Torah’s sweeping dramas and gripping scenes that capture our imagination and inspire our moral ambition.
But this week’s parashah contains a precious nugget of narrative that offers us, I believe, a valuable lesson for the precise moment we find ourselves in today.
The sixteenth chapter of Leviticus details the rituals of the first Yom Kippur. We read of the high priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies, his rites of purification for the sanctuary and the altar, and the designation of the scapegoat to carry away Israel’s sins. But unlike the recitation of holidays found in next week’s parashah, this week’s Torah portion situates Yom Kippur in a narrative drama.
The chapter opens:
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי-יְהוָה וַיָּמֻתוּ.
The Eternal spoke to Moses after the death of two of Aarons sons when they drew near before the Eternal and died (16:1).
The context for the first Yom Kippur is unmistakable – the ritual is conducted in the aftermath of the tragic death of Nadab and Abihu. As we read two weeks ago, the two eldest sons of Aaron died on their very first day of priestly service by offering an unauthorized sacrifice on the altar. And now, after an interlude of five chapters, we pick up right where that story left off.
This juxtaposition has led some modern scholars to conclude that the intense purification ritual described in Leviticus 16 was initially a response to unexpected crisis. It’s an emergency cleansing designed to be used as needed to purge the sanctuary.
As Jacob Milgrom writes:
According to this initial verse, chap. 16 follows upon chap. 10. … Nadab and Abihu had polluted the sanctuary doubly, in life by their sin and in death by their corpses. … Indeed, the fact that the rite described here could be regarded as an emergency measure originally fits the case of Nadab and Abihu perfectly.
(And yes, that’s page 1011 of his commentary on the first 16 chapters of Leviticus.)
The death of Aaron’s sons was a catastrophe, causing the loss in a single moment of 40% of Israel’s priests. Aaron was called upon to enact emergency measures, including an intense purification of the sanctuary. And as an additional effect, the ritual cleansing of Yom Kippur was powerful enough to scrub clean all of Israel’s sins.
According to this reading, the Torah presents a literary rendering of the original ritual of purification. At first, the ritual could be performed periodically and as needed; only in the course of time did it become a regular occurrence.
If Jacob Milgrom is right, then this adaptation over time is also fully on display in the Torah. After 28 verses of third-person descriptions about Aaron’s activities in the sanctuary, the text suddenly shifts to the second person.
וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשֹוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם וְכָל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשֹוּ הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכֲכֶם:
And this shall be for you for a statute for all time. In the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves; no work shall you do, the citizen and stranger who dwells in your midst (Lev. 16:29).
This shift in person, seen elsewhere in the Torah as a sign of textual layers, reveals a development in the holiday even in ancient times. The opportunity to relieve the entire people of its impurities, crimes, and sins was too precious to let go, so the emergency ritual was regularized, and new elements were added. For instance, it becomes a day of rest, a שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, on which each individual must practice self-denial (v. 31). Yom Kippur is established as a חֻקַּת עוֹלָם, an institution for all time, and this new enactment of permanence enshrines the timeless value of change.
Throughout Jewish history, moments of crisis—both mythical and real—have produced enduring change in our tradition. I’m honestly not sure if COVID-19 will leave the kind of lasting impression that other seismic shifts have produced, but at least in the short term, the changes we’ve experienced recently are bound to have an impact on what comes next.
When Nadab and Abihu died, Yom Kippur was invented to purify the altar, and it’s stayed with us ever since. Today, we stand in a similar position, looking back at a receding catastrophe, surveying the emergency procedures enacted in response, and wondering what will remain.
Think of what we’ve experienced in the past year that you never would have dreamed. For better and for worse, these experiences have changed us. And for better or for worse, some of them are here to stay, in one form or another. It’s possible that we have seen the birth of new rituals or mentalities that be with us for the rest of our lives. As we turn to tradition for guidance and to one another for support, we prepare ourselves for the future that lies ahead.
 Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (1991), p. 1011.
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