In our double-portion of Acharei Mot – Kedoshim this week, God says to Moses (Lev. 16:2) “Speak to your brother Aaron, that he should not come at all times into the Holy within the dividing curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, so that he should not die, for I appear over the ark cover in a cloud.” God places a limit on access to the Divine. This isn’t the first time that God has done so – back in Exodus 19, God warned Moses to erect a boundary around Mount Sinai so that the people do not touch it and die. As I spoke about last week, this is very much because of the danger of closeness with God. That danger is not just expressed in Torah but even in Rabbinic literature (Tosefta Hagigah 2:2, Bavli Hagigah 14b, Yerushalmi Hagigah 9:1), such as the following short story about pardes – Paradise:
Four entered pardes — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; Elisha ben Abuyah looked and apostatized; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.
This isn’t a story of four untrained Jews – these are four Rabbis who seem to peer into the unknown, who apparently try to peel back the mystical coverings protecting us from Divine danger. Of the four, three of them suffer – one dies, one goes mad and one becomes a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva is untouched. It’s a terrifying narrative. It seems to be saying that the closer one draws to Divinity, the more likely one is to be harmed.