April 17, 2008
The Great Reveal
Parshat Acharey Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30)
At 10:45 p.m.
Such midweek engagements in sweats and old T-shirts, with stress and exhaustion at their peak, would eliminate some pretense -- therefore saving my suitors and me time in assessing marriage potential. Presenting attractive facades of ourselves in lovely clothes, fancy restaurants and charming conversation would only delay our determining true compatibility. After all, one's spouse is the person who sees what's revealed "in here" considerably more often than what's undercover "out there."
To be sure, more than a bridal veil is lifted during the transition from courtship into matrimony. The intimacy of the latter demands that two people are prepared to pour themselves out before one another, exposing the purest and most naked part of their being with faith that it will be embraced. A sacred union requires nothing less than this kind of nakedness: a revelation far beyond the physical, and so exclusive that it cannot be attained with anyone else -- not even God.
That's what this week's Torah portion suggests. In its opening lines we learn that a meeting with the Divine is, at its most personal, something of a formal first date. Not only must one "bathe his flesh in water," but also "be attired [in] holy garments" (Leviticus 16:4) before getting together with God -- who will be "within [a] veil before [a] covering" (Leviticus 16:2).
Like a bachelor who dons a great pair of jeans, expensive cologne and plays it cool to shield himself from vulnerability to a broken heart, the High Priest must wear fine linens, burn sweet smells and keep a safe distance from his beloved, "lest he die." Both men understand that only fools rush in to certain relationships; conversely, the High Priest's sons -- after whom the portion is named -- were just those kinds of fools.
"After the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near before the Lord and died" (Leviticus 16:2), we learn that it was Nadav and Avihu's premature and over-exposed advances toward God that killed them. In their display of openness to the Divine, they became consumed in their love -- literally.
Perhaps this is why Rabbi Isaac Luria said the boys were killed because they were unmarried; they mistook the nakedness that can lead to ecstatic union with one's spouse to be translatable to communion with God.
The parsha makes it more than clear that this is not a mistake to be made. Exposure of one's nakedness -- emotional or corporeal -- is a level of intimacy reserved exclusively for one's partner in love and procreation. And to make sure we get the message, the text goes on to repeat its point. It repeats the word ervah (translated as "nakedness" or "to pour out") in prohibitive context 24 times in a 16-line paragraph.
Be it one's parent, sibling, grandchild or in-law, we must cover our essential states of defenselessness from one another at all times. We are not intended to reveal our totalities to more than one human being at a time.
As it is, most of us are still hiding from ourselves. Be it the disapproving grimaces we offer our reflections before the mirror or the shadows we cast over the ugly aspects of our characters, we have enough trouble confronting our own naked truths with unconditional love. To succeed in achieving intimacy with another is therefore more than enough to aspire toward.
The capacity to entirely behold the emptiness and starkness and frailty of a human being is the holiest of places we can occupy. If we succeed in embracing this place, we are rewarded with the ecstasy of reunion with the Divine.
And the competence to respect the fullness and complexity and protectiveness of everyone else is the holiest of positions we can take. If we succeed in revering this place, we are rewarded with the delight of communion with the Divine.
Somewhere between the lines of the text, we can find balance between what is concealed and what is revealed. We learn through the death of the two young priests that the Light of God is too strong to approach directly; a covering is necessary. And in that we are all made in the Image, we can more easily acknowledge the Divine light that must therefore be shining behind the veils of our fellows. In fact, the more they hide behind, the more we ought to appreciate the sanctity hidden within.
Meanwhile, late at night, in sweats and a T-shirt full of holes, I am faithful that I will come to meet someone who will see this display as holy indeed. I pray for an opportunity to join those courageous enough to commit to see and be seen in a nakedness beyond the shadows, and feel blessed in knowing that God exists in it all.
Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.