Acharey Mot: Cloud Cover

April 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot | Leave a comment

God said to Moses: Speak to Aaron, your brother, so he won’t come in at just any time to the holy place within the curtained enclosure, to the front of the atonement-cover that is upon the ark—so he will not die; because I will appear in a cloud over the atonement-cover.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:2)

He will take a pan-full of glowing charcoals of fire from the side of altar facing God, and two handfuls of incense of fine fragrant spices, and he will bring them into the curtained enclosure.  He will place the incense upon the fire, in front of God; and he will conceal with a cloud of the incense the atonement-cover that is over the Affidavit (of God)—so he will not die.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:12-13)

anan = cloud

ha-kapporet = the place of atonement; the lid covering the ark in the Holy of Holies

ha-eidut = the Affidavit, the written testimony or affirmation (of God) kept in the ark (presumed to be the Ten Commandments); the reminder

In the sky, a cloud is part of the weather.  When a cloud comes down and becomes fog, it limits how far and how much you can see.  English, like Biblical Hebrew, also uses the word “cloud” or anan for anything suspended in the air that limits vision, including smoke from incense.

God began “appearing”, making its presence manifest, in a pillar of cloud (by day) and fire (by night) back in the book of Exodus/Shemot, before the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea.  At the end of Exodus, when Moses and the Israelites finish making a portable sanctuary for God, “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory (kavod) of God filled the sanctuary.”  The last lines of the book are: “When the cloud rose up from over the sanctuary, the children of Israel set off on all their journeys.  And if the cloud did not rise up, they did not set off until the day it did rise up.  For the cloud of God was over the sanctuary by day, and fire would be there by night, in the eyes of all the house of Israel on all their journeys.”  So God’s presence routinely manifests as a cloud hanging over the sanctuary.  And the “glory” or presence (kavod) of God also appears inside the Holy of Holies, above the cover of the ark itself.

In the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, when Aaron’s two oldest sons bring incense into the Holy of Holies, a fire from God appears and consumes them.  This week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“after the death”) refers back to the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu.  Now God tells Moses to tell Aaron, the high priest, that  he can’t come into the Holy of Holies at just any old time, like his brother Moses.  If Aaron tries to enter on the wrong day, or without all the ritual precautions, he will die like his two oldest sons—“because I will appear in a cloud over the atonement cover”.

By the time of the second temple in Jerusalem, which fell in 70 C.E., there were two opinions about the meaning of this verse.  The majority opinion was that there were two clouds in the Holy of Holies on the day of Yom Kippur.  The “glory” of God appeared as a cloud over the ark.  When the high priest entered, he carried in a pan of embers and a ladle containing two handfuls of incense.  He set down the pan on the ground, between the poles of the ark, and he threw the incense on it.  Then the fragrant smoke rose in a column like a palm tree, spread out over the ceiling, and gradually filled the curtained enclosure, until the cloud of incense obscured the cloud of God’s “glory”.

This seems like a straightforward reading of the text in Leviticus.  But the Tzeddokim, later called the Sadducees, held the opinion that there was only one cloud, the cloud of incense.  Therefore the high priest should pour the incense spices on the pan of embers before he entered the Holy of Holies, and carry the cloud of smoke in with him.  That way he would never be able to see the cover of the ark, not even when he first entered.  This was important because the book of Exodus says no one can see God and live.

Arguments against the one-cloud hypothesis of the Tzeddokim abound, from the Talmud to orthodox commentary today.  One of my favorite arguments is that Nadav and Avihu brought their fire-pans into the Holy of Holies with the incense already smoking, and that was the mistake that killed them.  Another argument is that if a high priest started burning the incense outside the Holy of Holies, it would be for his own self-gratification; he would enjoy the fragrance himself before bringing it to God to enjoy.  I think this argument assumes that high priests had strong constitutions; the Talmud (Yoma 39b) says the smell of the incense on Yom Kippur spread out so far from the temple in Jerusalem, it made the goats in Jericho sneeze.

(I wonder about the two goats chosen by lot on Yom Kippur, one to be sacrificed on the altar to God, the other to receive the sins of the people and be led out into the wilderness of Azazel.  Did they both sneeze?)

I can understand why the high priest is only able to enter the Holy of Holies once a year, with much ritual preparation.  Getting that close to God-consciousness, to perceiving the unity of everything without the distinctions and separations that are part of normal “left-brained” human thought, is indeed a dangerous enterprise requiring good preparation.

I can also understand why God appears in a cloud.  We are finite creatures; when we try to understand the infinite, our internal perception is clouded.  But why should a human being who is acting as a high priest create his own cloud of incense, in front of God’s presence?  Why make things any cloudier than they already are?

My only answer is that this intimate incense-offering takes place on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when we ask God for forgiveness for everything we have done wrong over the past year.  When we ask for that level of divine, inner forgiveness, it’s not enough to know that our views of God are clouded.  We need to know that we can’t see ourselves clearly, either: neither our souls, nor our actions, nor how we look to others.  Like God, our own selves are manifest only in a cloud.  Yet somehow, we move through the fog of life and try to be better people and try to serve God, whatever “God” might mean to each of us.

Even if our goats sneeze.



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