The Kohanim and the People

  • Harav Baruch Gigi

Adapted by Immanuel Mayer

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The double parasha that we read this week represents the transition between the two halves of Sefer Vayikra. The first half, addressed to the Kohanim, contains the details of the sacrifices, along with the laws of ritual sanctity and purification. The second half of the sefer is addressed to Am Yisrael as a whole.

Our parasha opens by recalling the death of Aharon’s sons. The commentators are divided as to when this parasha was conveyed. Did God tell all of this to Moshe on the day that Nadav and Avihu died, or at some later point? Either way, the Torah emphasizes at the beginning of the long unit detailing the service of the Kohen Gadol that the entire procedure is intended “so he will not die”. So he will not die – unlike Nadav and Avihu. In order for him not to die, the text stipulates how he is to enter the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim. In this way, the description of the process that appears at the beginning of our parasha represents, on the simplest level, a tikkun (repair) for the sin of Nadav and Avihu.

In contrast, at the end of the unit regarding the service of the Kohen Gadol, there is an interesting twist. There, the whole process that has just been described is linked to Yom Kippur:

And it shall be for you an everlasting statute, that in the seventh month on the tenth of the month you shall afflict your souls, and you shall do no manner of work – both the home-born and the stranger who dwells among you. (Vayikra 16:29)

Why does the Yom Kippur process of atonement and purification appear here? And what is the connection between Yom Kippur and repairing the sin of Nadav and Avihu?

Following the connection to Yom Kippur, there is a description of the execution of the service as described in the verses: “And he did as the Lord had commanded Moshe” (v. 34). The sin of Nadav and Avihu took place on the eighth day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, in the month of Nissan. How could Aharon have carried out the Yom Kippur service at that time? Rashi resolves this discrepancy as follows:

“And he did as the Lord had commanded…” – [meaning,] when Yom Kippur came, he performed this order of service. This is meant in praise of Aharon, who did not wear [the special white linen garments] for self-aggrandizement, but rather to fulfill the King’s decree. (Rashi, ad loc.)

Rashi (along with his grandson, Rashbam) understands from the verse that Aharon carried out God’s command when the proper time – Yom Kippur – came around. In this view, the verse notes Aharon’s fulfillment of the command, which actually happened half a year after the death of Aharon’s sons. In contrast, the Ramban interprets the verse as referring to the prohibitions contained in this unit:

And what is meant by, “And he did as the Lord had commanded Moshe” is that Aharon carried out all that he was commanded to, and was careful for the rest of his life not to enter inside of the veil except on Yom Kippur, and on Yom Kippur he performed the sacrificial service, just as God had commanded Moshe. (Ramban, ad loc.)

According to the Ramban, Aharon’s obedience to the command was expressed in his avoidance of entry into the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim so long as the necessary conditions accompanying such entry – the proper time and the required service – were not fulfilled.

Thus, according to Rashi and Rashbam, Aharon fulfilled God’s command by entering the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim on Yom Kippur, while according to the Ramban, he fulfilled the command by avoiding entry at any time other than Yom Kippur.


Our parasha has two different themes. The first part of the parasha discusses Aharon’s entry into the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim. Aharon is to enter, by Divine command, the same place where his sons died, and this will represent a repairing of the sin that his sons committed. The command comes after the death of his sons, with the aim of atoning for their sin. Hence, the emphasis in the text is understandable. He should not come at all times into the holy place; rather, he must come “be-zot,” “thus” – under particular conditions – so that “he will not die.”

Over the course of the parasha, this command assumes a public dimension. If Aharon does not enter the holy place as the representative of Am Yisrael, then he is not entitled to enter at all. He must make atonement for the entire nation, and only then can he enter. We have already quoted Rashi’s comment at the end of this unit: “This is meant in praise of Aharon, who did not wear [the special white linen garments] for self-aggrandizement, but rather to fulfill the King’s decree.”

For what exactly is Aharon being praised? For fulfilling God’s command? Surely that is a most elementary demand! Rather, an understanding of Rashi’s interpretation must take into account this public dimension. Aharon did not wear the special garments for his own honor, but rather as the representative of the nation. His entire service in the Mishkan, including his entry into the innermost Holy of Holies, is facilitated and is imbued with its auspicious character only because he is the representative of the people.

Along with this theme – the repair for the sin of Nadav and Avihu – there is another that arises over the course of the parasha, and that is Yom Kippur: “And this shall be for you an everlasting statute,” in order to make atonement for Bnei Yisrael once each year. Here the process is not depicted in terms of Aharon’s entry into the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim, but rather as a process whose aim is atonement for Bnei Yisrael. The means for achieving this happens to involve the Kohen Gadol entering that holy place. Here, there is no specific reference to Aharon:

And the Kohen who shall be anointed, and who shall be consecrated to minister in the Kohen’s office in his father’s stead, shall make the atonement, and shall put on the linen clothes, the holy garments… (v. 32)

Here, too, the same public dimension is manifest. This time, the aim is not a repair for the sin of Nadav and Avihu, but rather for the sins of Bnei Yisrael:

For on that day He will forgive you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. (v. 30)

This verse speaks of the purification and atonement of all of Am Yisrael from their sins on Yom Kippur. There is no mention of Aharon, nor any room for the particular sins of his sons.


What is the relationship between these two themes within the first unit of Parashat Acharei-Mot? What is the function of this unit, and what is its place in the transition between the first part of the sefer, which discusses the priestly caste, and the second part, which discusses the “kingdom of priests” that is Am Yisrael?

In fact, the two themes share an interesting connection: each represents the condition for the other. Aharon can come to the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim – but only as the representative of the nation. Unless he comes in this capacity and in this role, he is not permitted to enter. And atonement for the sin of Aharon’s sons is possible only if Aharon comes and recognizes his public role amongst and in the midst of Bnei Yisrael.

On the other hand, atonement and purification for Bnei Yisrael are dependent on the actions of the Kohen. It is only by means of the Kohen Gadol’s entry into the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim and the execution of his special service in all its detail (including the goats, the incense, etc.) that they achieve atonement.

In fact, this mutual relationship expresses the transition between the two parts of the sefer. The Kohen should not think that he is somehow superior to or in control of the nation. Only by maintaining a humble approach will he be able to enter without dying. At the same time, every individual Israelite knows that the actions of the kohen in the Temple will have a direct effect on his own personal standing. Without the service of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, that Israelite will remain stained with his sin and mired in his impurity.


This combination facilitates additional aims set forth in our parasha. A little later in Parashat Acharei-Mot, we find:

And you shall observe My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live in them; I am the Lord. (Vayikra 18:5)

Here Chazal offer their famous teaching: “‘He shall live in them’ – but not die in them.” This verse is cited by R. Akiva in support of his own position in opposition to Ben Petura. R. Akiva deduces from the verse that God’s commandments are not meant to lead to the death of those who fulfill them.

The combination of the priestly caste and the nation, which achieves the same level of sanctity, allows for life, in the most fundamental sense of the word. On another level, it also allows proper social relations. The Ramban elaborates as follows:

Therefore the text says, “which, if a man does, he shall live in them” – for the laws were given for human life in the social order, and for human welfare, and so that a person will not harm his neighbor, nor kill him. And thus Yechezkel mentions in many places the judgments “which a person shall do and live by them.” And concerning the Shabbatot he says that they are to be “a sign between Me and them,” and likewise in Nechemia – “but they sinned against Your judgments, which, if a man does, he shall live by them”… (Ramban, ad loc.)

The mitzvot in our parasha lead not only to physical survival, but also to proper social relations. This represents the fulfillment of a need for social order, for peace between man and his fellow.

However, there is also another facet to it. These two aspects represent the bare physical minimum – the life of the individual and the life of a society. We aim for much more than that; we aim for sanctity. We must live a life of sanctity. Sanctity is the subject interwoven throughout the very next parasha, Parashat Kedoshim. It is manifest from the outset – with the declaration, “You shall be holy” – via the continuation – “you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy” – and all the way to the conclusion of the parasha:

And you shall be holy unto Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the people, that you should be Mine. (Vayikra 20:26)

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat, parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5772 [2012].)