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Acharei Mot 5776-2016

“Never Give Up Hope”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Acharei Mot opens with a description of the ancient atonement service conducted on Yom Kippur in the Tabernacle for the People of Israel, and provides a detailed account of the well-known scapegoat ritual.

The Yom Kippur atonement service, known as the עֲבוֹדָה—Avodah, is featured prominently in the High Holiday prayer book and is considered one of the highlights of the Yom Kippur prayer service.

At the height of the Yom Kippur service, the High Priest, standing in the “Holy of Holies” chamber, would separately take the blood of both a bull and a he-goat and sprinkle the blood eight times, once upward and seven times downward, toward the Holy Ark. Each time the High Priest sprinkled up and down he would count out loud: 1, 1 and 1, 1 and 2 through 1 and 7 (Leviticus 16:14-15). Scripture states that this ritual provided atonement upon the sanctuary for the contaminations of the Children of Israel and achieved forgiveness for even the peoples’ rebellious sins.

The Torah then instructs the High Priest to repeat the sprinkling in the outer (“Holy”) chamber of the sanctuary toward the פָּרֹכֶת–Parochet, the veil that served to separate the Holy chamber in the Tabernacle/Temple from the Holy of Holies. The verse, Leviticus 16:16, calling for the additional sprinkling concludes with the words, וְכֵן יַעֲשֶׂה לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם, and so shall he do for the Tent of Meeting that dwells with them, amid their impurity.

Rashi explains that the words, “that dwells with them amid their impurity,” means that even though the Jews themselves are impure, the שְׁכִינָה–Shechinah, the Divine Presence, is always among them.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, elaborates further on the role of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, the feminine aspect of G-d. Rabbi Soloveitchik draws a distinction between the so-called “natural” attitudes of fathers and mothers to their children. When the baby dirties its diaper, the father often hands the baby over to the mother to be cleaned. The mother, on the other hand, is always ready to clean the child and is prepared to do everything that is necessary, though it may be unpleasant.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that in the spiritual world, the Al-mighty G-d, the Shechinah, is always prepared to help His/Her child, no matter how challenging and rebellious that child may be. Says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “The Shechinah is present at the moment that man is in distress and suffers from spiritual crisis. It dwells with them amidst their defilements.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik boldly asserts that the Divine Presence never completely leaves any Jew, no matter how far they may have strayed, no matter how sinful they may be. Says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “G-d is there after man sins. He remains hidden in the inner recesses of the heart of even the worst evil-doer, until the moment arrives when he remembers his Maker, renounces his ways and repents.”

In the same vein, the Berditchever Rebbe once commented: “You can be for G-d and you can be against G-d, but you cannot be without G-d.” Though man may abandon G-d, G-d will never abandon man.

The concept of G-d’s unconditional love for His people is profoundly and movingly expressed in the verse found in Deuteronomy 30:4. Speaking of Jews who have drifted or been drawn away from G-d, Moses declares: אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם, מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ, Even though your dispersed shall be at the far ends of the heavens, from there the L-rd will gather you in and from there He will take you.

On November 23, 1992, the New York Times posted an obituary for the late Sylvia Weiss. Sylvia Weiss had three daughters. Two of the daughters had non-Jewish family names and were apparently intermarried. Sylvia Weiss herself had a “companion” named Vincent J. Tufarlello. The obituary also noted that she had one grandchild named “Shmuel Dovid.”

The family of Sylvia Weiss was quite assimilated, but she nevertheless left one grandson, Shmuel Dovid, not Samuel David. Although she herself was at “the far ends of the heavens,” the L-rd gathered her family in.

This may very well be the meaning of our verse, הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם, G-d, Who dwells among them, amidst their impurity.

Though man may abandon G-d, thank G-d, G-d never abandons man.

This verse serves as a powerful lesson for us as well. We must never give up hope on ourselves, or on others. After all, G-d will always be by our side.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, is observed this year on Wednesday night, May 4th, and all day Thursday, May 5th, 2016.