How can anyone enter the Holy of Holies and come out alive?
God spoke to Moses after the death of two of the sons of Aaron, when they drew close in front of God and they died. And God said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron, your brother, so he shall not come at [just] any time into the holy place inside the curtain, to the front of the atonement-cover that is on the ark—so he will not die, because I appear in an anan over the atonement-cover. (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:2)
anan (עָנָן) cloud (of water vapor, smoke, or anything that hangs in the air and limits vision. Anan comes from the same root as onein, עוֹנֵן = made appear, conjured up.)
Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense “close in front of God” earlier in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. (See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.) Their souls are consumed by a divine fire.1 Only in this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“After the death”), does the Torah indicate how “close in front of God” is too close.
A curtain separates the Tent of Meeting, a portable sanctuary for God, into two rooms. All the priests walk in and out of the larger front chamber, as they tend the incense altar, the bread table, and the menorah. The smaller back chamber is the Holy of Holies where the ark stands. The solid gold lid of the ark is called the atonement-cover or kaporet (כַּפֺּרֶת). According to the Torah, God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the lid.2
Do Nadav and Avihu go too far by bringing their unauthorized incense into the front chamber of the tent? Or did they go farther and transgress by entering the Holy of Holies? The commentary is divided, but the beginning of Acharey Mot implies that they walk all the way into the Holy of Holies.3
Then God says that even Aaron, the high priest, will die if he enters the back chamber at the wrong time. When is the right time? The ensuing instructions designate one day a year when the high priest will enter the Holy of Holies as part of a long ritual to make atonement with God.4 Identified here as “the tenth day of the seventh month”, this day came to be known as Yom Kippur.
On that day the high priest steps inside the Holy of Holies twice, and both times he sprinkles blood on the atonement-cover of the ark. The first time the blood comes from a bull he has slaughtered to make atonement for himself and his own household.5
The second time the blood comes from a goat he has slaughtered as an atonement offering for the people.6 (It is one of two goats chosen by lot; the other goat is sent out into the wilderness to Azazel. See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)
But before the high priest sprinkles blood the first time, he must make a cloud of incense inside the Holy of Holies.
He shall take a pan-full of glowing charcoal embers from the side of the altar facing God, and two handfuls of finely-ground, fragrant incense, and he shall bring them through the curtain. And he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God. And the anan of the incense shall conceal the atonement-cover that is over the Reminder [inside the ark], so he will not die. Then he shall take some blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the surface of the atonement-cover… (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:12-14)
Apparently when Aaron first enters the Holy of Holies, no cloud covers the lid of the ark. He has to generate a cloud from incense, on the spot.7 According to the Talmud, in the Holy of Holies inside the temple in Jerusalem the smoke from the high priest’s incense “rose straight up like a palm tree”. Then it spread out over the ceiling and down the walls until it filled the whole room.8
The chamber remains thick with smoke when the high priest returns with the goat’s blood. The Talmud says the smell of the incense on Yom Kippur spread out so far from the temple in Jerusalem that it made the goats in Jericho sneeze.9 (I imagine the goat led out into the wilderness for Azazel was also sneezing as it went.)
The phrase “so he will not die” is linked with an anan both at the beginning of the Torah portion and in the instructions for filling the Holy of Holies with smoke.
|… so that he shall not come at [just] any time into the holy place inside the curtain, to the front of the atonement-cover … so he will not die, because I appear in an anan over the atonement-cover.
|And he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God. And the anan of the incense shall conceal the atonement-cover … so he will not die.
In verse 16:2, God appears in an anan over the ark. In verse 16:13, Aaron must generate an anan to conceal the ark. In verse 16:2, this sight of God in an anan seems to be fatal. In verse 16:13, a prolonged view of the ark cover seems to be fatal.
One cloud or two?
Are there two clouds, one conjured up by God and the other made by the high priest? Classic commentary is divided on the question.10 If there is only one cloud, the anan of incense, then what would Aaron see when he first walks into the Holy of Holies? This week’s Torah portion implies that he would see the lid of the ark and empty air above it. Since he would remain alive long enough to fill the room with incense, the sight of the atonement-cover would be fatal only when he sprinkles blood on it.
We can assume God is in residence, to witness the atonement ritual. The book of Exodus/Shemot tells us that no human being can see God’s “face” and live.11 Even Moses would not see God’s face when God spoke to him from above the lid of the ark. So God’s presence above the ark must be either invisible, or clouded by God’s own anan.
From Egypt to Mount Sinai, and again from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River, God provides a pillar of cloud (by day) and fire (by night) to guide the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.12 At Mount Sinai, only Moses can enter the cloud of smoke at fire on the mountaintop, where he goes to converse with God before the tent-sanctuary is built.
But when Moses finishes assembling the sanctuary,
…the anan covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the dwelling-place. Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the anan settled on it and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. (Exodus/Shemot 40:34-35)
kavod (כָּווֹד) = splendor, magnificence, weightiness. (When kavod refers to God, it is usually translated as “glory” or “presence”.)
Everyone can see the cloud on top of the tent roof, just as everyone can see the pillar of cloud and fire during the Israelites’ journeys. But even Moses cannot enter the Tent of Meeting when it is filled with the kavod of God—which might look, to human eyes, like either cloud or fire.
The cloud above the tent remains until God gives the signal to strike camp and journey on by lifting the cloud and restoring the guiding pillar of cloud and fire. The kavod inside the tent shrinks or disappears at some point while the tent is still pitched at Mount Sinai, before Moses takes Aaron inside in the portion Shemini.
And Moses and Aaron came into the Tent of Meeting and they went out and they blessed the people. Then the kavod of God appeared to all the people. And fire went out from in front of God … (Leviticus 9:23-24)
The fire consumes the offerings on the altar. Then Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu go into the tent with their unauthorized incense, and the fire appears again and consumes them. Yet after that, Aaron’s cousins safely enter the Tent of Meeting and carry out the two bodies. And from then on, the priests move freely in and out of the front chamber of the tent. Only the back chamber, the Holy of Holies, remains dangerous—probably because God might appear at any time in an anan of kavod over the ark.
If only the sight of God’s appearance in an anan is fatal, it follows that Aaron can enter the Holy of Holies safely on Yom Kippur because that is the day God will refrain from appearing in an anan—at least until the room is so full of incense smoke that the high priest could not see God’s anan.
Therefore when Aaron first steps into the Holy of Holies there is no anan inside. God is either invisible or not yet in residence. Aaron makes a cloud of incense in order to hide the atonement-cover of the ark, so he can sprinkle blood on it without dying. When the incense has filled the room, either God remains an invisible presence (as when God speaks to Moses in that spot), or God appears in a small anan of kavod over the ark, which Aaron cannot see through the smoke.
I can understand why God’s kavod appears as cloud and fire. We are finite creatures; when we try to understand the infinite, our minds cannot penetrate the mystery, and we find ourselves in a mental fog, glimpsing only transient flickers of enlightenment. When we try to turn our experiences of God into concrete words or images, we lose their essence.
Perhaps if human beings look straight at the anan of God’s kavod for more than a moment, our minds snap.13 Our bodies remain whole, like those of Nadav and Avihu, but we lose our personal selves or souls, and what remains cannot function in the world. This is the kind of death Aaron must avoid by entering the Holy of Holies under only two conditions:
- when God has signaled that it is time to strike camp and move on; then Aaron and his two surviving sons take down the curtain and cover the ark with it.14
- on Yom Kippur, the one day a year God has designated for the ritual of atonement.
The rest of the time, Aaron must stay out, so he will not accidentally see God appear in an anan.
While the incense altar in the front chamber of the Tent of Meeting is used for other purposes, the high priest creates an anan of incense inside the Holy of Holies only on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. This is the day 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 is not enough to know that God appears in a cloud. We need to know that we cannot see ourselves clearly, either: neither our motivations nor how our actions look to others. Like God, our own souls are manifest only in a cloud.
Yet as we grope through the fog of life, we can still try to become better people and try to serve God, whatever “God” might mean to each of us.
Even if we generate so much smoke our goats sneeze.
- The fire consumes them in Leviticus 10:1-2. Aaron’s cousins carry the bodies of Nadav and Avihu out of the camp, holding them by their tunics, in Leviticus 10:4-5. Therefore the divine fire took their lives without incinerating their bodies or even burning their clothes.
- Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.
- Since the divine fire passes through their tunics without charring them, it could also pass through both the inner curtain and the curtained doorway to the courtyard without damaging either curtain.
- Leviticus 16:29-34.
- Leviticus 16:6, 16:14.
- Leviticus 16:15.
- It seems clear to me that Aaron walks into the chamber carrying a pan of embers, two handfuls of ground incense (probably in a bag), and a bowl of bull’s blood (Leviticus 16:11-12). Once inside, he shall place the incense on the fire, in front of God, and the smoke conceals the atonement-cover (Leviticus 16:14). This was also the opinion of the Pharisees during the time of the second temple in Jerusalem. The Sadducees insisted the incense had to be smoking before the high priest entered the Holy of Holies. They also tied a rope around the high priest’s ankle so someone could pull him out if he did die inside the Holy of Holies.
- Talmud Bavli, Yoma 53a.
- Talmud Bavli, Yoma 39b.
- Rashi and Maimonides wrote that Leviticus 16:2 refers to God’s cloud of kavod, so there were two clouds. Nachmanides and the Talmud Yerushalmi tractate Yoma say that Leviticus 16:2 refers to the high priest’s cloud of incense.
- Exodus 33:18-23. Face (panim, פָּנִים) and kavod are used as synonyms in this passage.
- Exodus 13:21-22, Leviticus 40:36-37.
- The Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 14b, tells the story of four rabbis who entered pardes, paradise. Ben Azai looked at the divine kavod and died, Ben Zoma looked and went mad, and Elisha ben Abuyah (a.k.a. Acher) became an apostate. Only Akiva, the greatest rabbi of that era, returned whole.
- When the Israelites break camp, Aaron and his two surviving sons take down the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies and cover the ark with it. Touching the uncovered ark would be fatal to the Levites who will carry it to the next campsite, but the priests are safe while they cover it. (Numbers 4:5-6, 4:15.)
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