The opening line of this portion, "The Eternal One spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal" (Leviticus 16:1), reminds us that the holy is not only attractive, but also dangerous. In The Idea of the Holy (trans. John Harvey [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923]), Rudolf Otto describes the holy as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which can be translated as "an awe-filled and fascinating mystery." We are both attracted to this power and terrified by it. In trying to understand this compelling force that both draws us and frightens us, we can look for an analogy to our own human relationships, where we also find the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. For us, it is a potent symbol of our erotic relationships, which are life-giving, electrifying, and wonderful, yet also represent danger and the potential for jealousy and even death. Perhaps for this reason, the portion that reminds us of the death of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, ends by detailing the sexual relationships forbidden by God.
Of the four fundamental human drives-for food, shelter, sleep, and sex-all are essential requirements for individual survival except sex. An individual can indeed be celibate and survive, but the community requires sex for its survival. Judaism has taken these basic drives and moved them beyond their "animal" form by giving us regulations about what counts as clean or unclean food, how we are to mark the doorposts of our houses and gates with the Sh'ma , how we pray before retiring to sleep and right after waking up, and what sexual relationships are not approved.
Eros is, to be sure, an important drive but it is far more than that. Hebrew has only a single word for "love," ahavah, whileclassical Greek has four. The distinctions between the Hebrew and Greek concepts of love can help us understand why human love and sexuality serve as such a forceful analogy for our relationship to God. The four Greek terms are eros, which gives us the term "erotic"; philia, which gives us "friendship"; caritas, which is related to charity; and agape, which describes a love that is general rather than conjugal or intimate. Perhaps the Hebrew word-and later the English word-reveal a wisdom recognizing that love includes all of these different aspects and more, so we shouldn't try to separate them out. Erotic passion is part-but not all-of a lifelong relationship, and the covenant between spouses models, in significant ways, our covenant with God.
In the early days, the Israelites could meet God only within the confines of the Temple and then only by submitting to the mediation of the Levites and following strict regulations of dress and behavior. By the time of David, the formality had been transformed to a lifelong relationship that allows for praise, petition, confession, and a good air-clearing argument, as in Psalm 13:2-4: "How long, O Adonai; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? Look at me, answer me, O Adonai, my God." The love is no less, but the comfort is far greater. Love is not good behavior, it is authentic behavior.
Acharei Mot describes the uncomfortable, new, and still terrifying time of love. The portion remains paramount not because of the specific sexual relationships it deems unclean, but because it reminds us how powerful sexual relationships can be. A person who has led an exemplary life may betray all he or she stood for in a single sexual indiscretion. Sex not only brings forth life, but it also makes us feel alive. At the same time, we know that a life force can be used for good or for evil. Within the context of this portion we are reminded that we want to draw close to God but in a way that will enliven and not destroy us. Let us recall that God commands Moses to take off his shoes as he stood on holy ground (Exodus 3:5). It is with that same fear and trembling that we need to approach those we wish to meet in sexual congress. This, too, is holy ground. And we must remember that the other person, like everyone else, is created in the image of God, so we must approach the other with reverence.
Dr. Carol Ochs is director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.