On the Weekly Torah Portion of Acharey Mot


The Ark of the Covenant

As practically all of the book of Leviticus, this week’s Torah portion, acharey mot (Leviticus Ch. 16-18), lists numerous rules regarding how Aharon, the chief priest, is to conduct himself while he is in the Tent of the Meeting (another name for the Tabernacle).

For the Hassidic rabbis, these are just codes for how one should conduct oneself during prayer. The “Tent of the Meeting” is not a physical place for them; it is the deeper realms of one’s consciousness. Entering the Tent of the Meeting (ohel mo’ed) is entering that place within oneself, where one meets one’s Maker.

Here is how Rabbi Benjamin Ben Aharon from Zlositch, author of Torey Zahav (תורי זהב), interpreted one of these instructions. The text says:

וְכָל אָדָם לֹא יִהְיֶה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּבֹאוֹ לְכַפֵּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ עַד צֵאתוֹ וְכִפֶּר בַּעֲדוֹ וּבְעַד בֵּיתוֹ וּבְעַד כָּל קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל:
No person shall be in the Tent of Meeting [the Tabernacle] when he comes in to atone for the holy, until he goes out. He shall make atonement for himself and his household…. (Leviticus 16:17)

Rabbi Benjamin Ben Aharon from Zlositch writes:*

In the book Duties of the Hearts** [hovot halevavot, by the 11th century Rabbi Bahya ibn Paqquda] we are told that a person should regularly practice lone meditation [hitbodedut [התבודדות, separated from other people. You should reach the state that even when surrounded by a thousand people, you are able to maintain your attachment to God. Nothing should divide you or separate you from that attachment (Sha‘ar Heshbon ha-Nefesh 3).

Thus I interpret our verse…. We know that before praying you should be stripped of your corporeal self. Your thought should cleave to the exaltedness of God, as though you were standing in the upper worlds among angels, rather than surrounded by people. When you forget that you are among people, you are able to pray with great intensity, without any false motives. This is [what is meant by] No person shall be in the Tent of Meeting. That refers to the synagogue or house of study, the place where people gather to pray. No person shall be there in your thought; you should be so stripped of physical selfhood that you forget you are standing among people. As you come in to atone for the holy: the time of prayer, which takes the place of atoning sacrifices. Until he goes out: from the beginning to the end of prayer. He shall make atonement for himself and his household: prayer of this sort is surely pure.

Thus I also interpreted the sages’ saying “In a place where there is no man, try to be a man” (Mishnah, Pirkey Avot 2: 5). When you stand in that place of teshuvah, strive to be more than an ordinary man; enter the upper realms, where there is no other person. Before you perform a mitsvah, set your mind to be attached above, as though there were no person present….

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The Hassids were not the only mystics that took ancient stories of entering the tabernacle or the temple to mean entering one’s own Holy of Holies. A story that I told earlier in this blog is fit to be told here, since this we are approaching the holiday of Passover, even though it is coming from the New Testament. The story comes from the Gospel of Luke:

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.  And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.  When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:41-47)

Commenting on this story, Meister Eckhart, the great 14th century mystic who deserves, in my eyes, to be called “a Christian Hassid”, had an interpretation of this story that reminds one of the Hassids.

For Eckhart, this story is a metaphor for one’s search for God. When one lives unconsciously, one is so self-absorbed that one does not know whether or not one is connected to God. This is symbolized by the fact that “the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it” (the parents, in this story, symbolize the seekers).

As life progresses, one notices that something is missing, but thinks that the solution is near, and one is bound to stumble upon it sooner or later in the natural course of one’s life. “Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey.

It does not take long for an introspective soul to realize that one has to look deeper. One may not be ready for a radical change yet—one still looks for God in the familiar—but the intensity of one’s search increases. “Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.

When that fails, one decides to be much more focused and serious. One starts devoting all of one’s energy to the search, engaging in prayer, meditation, and holy practices. This, Meister Eckhart says, is what is meant by the fact that the parents returned to the holy city, to Jerusalem, and looked for boy Jesus within its walls. But even after three days of constant searching in the holy city, they could not find him. In other words, holy, religious pursuits in themselves are no guarantee for finding God.

Where do they find God eventually? In the temple, which for Eckhart is a metaphor for the deepest level of Self, the deepest level of one’s consciousness. When one finally steps into that inner realm, one realizes that God has been there all along, teaching.

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Happy Passover!


*Green, Arthur; Leader, Ebn; Mayse, Ariel Evan; Rose, Or N. (2013-07-09). Speaking Torah, Vol. 1: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table (Kindle Locations 5327-5336). Jewish Lights Publishing. Kindle Edition.

**חובות הלבבות

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
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