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Friday, 23 April 2021

Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 2021 – Encounter at the Boundary of Pardes

 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 AzzaiBen ZomaElisha 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.
So, what does that mean for the rest of us, for those of us who are not Akivas?  Do we not get the Premium Divinity service – do we only get access to God-lite? And why are they even trying to plumb the Divine depths when God is very clear in Exodus (33:18) that “no one may see Me and live”?
At first glance, it may seem that this story is merely trying to elevate Akiva to the level of Moses, or perhaps even above it, thereby justifying Rabbinic interpretation of the Revelation originally given to Moses. Indeed, this isn’t the only text to do so – in Tractate Menachot (29b) in Talmud, for example, Moses asks God why letters in Torah need crowns and God explains that Akiva will arise in the future to explain laws upon laws just on those ornaments alone. Akiva can teach more from the law than Moses himself! Moses dares not look at the fullness of God, whereas Akiva has a different experience. Moses’ experience is far more passive – he hides in a cleft in a rock and God’s glory passes by, whereas Akiva enters and departs Paradise. Of course, God and Paradise are not the same thing, and it would be problematic were we to conflate the two. However, Rashi says specifically that Ben Azzai dies in this story because he gazes at the Presence of God, which Moses was warned not to do. So, Pardes is a place where one might experience the fullness of God, meaning that Akiva’s entry into it is extraordinary.
What is Pardes? It’s a Persian loan-word meaning “orchard,” and is generally taken to mean Paradise. Rabbinic literature also plays on it as an acrostic, though, to represent the four differing ways of reading a text – P’shat (literally), Remez (allegorically), Drash (metaphorically), Sod (mystically). Pardes is all of Jewish interpretation. To truly see Pardes, one sees how to interpret everything. No wonder Ben Zoma goes mad! That’s too much knowledge for one person. And no wonder Elisha ben Abuya becomes an apostate, because the more one learns, the more one single misinterpretation can cascade down into a totally skewed mindset.
With all this in mind, we need to reread our story to realize an important difference between the three Rabbis who suffer and Akiva….
Four entered pardes — Ben AzzaiBen ZomaElisha 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.
Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuya all look but Akiva enters and departs - Akiva does something different to the other three. If Pardes is taken as all of Jewish learning, three Rabbis learn objectively from a distance, whereas one learns subjectively from their own lived experience. If Pardes is taken as a place of being, as a place of encountering the Divine, the three Rabbis lift the veil to look beyond, whereas Akiva actually crosses from the realm of the finite to the realm of the Infinite and back again. Three Rabbis are limited by the boundary, whereas Akiva encounters and crosses the boundary. He doesn’t stare objectively from a distance, he doesn’t study what is beyond - he lives it. He knows he cannot live it fully for that is not his realm, so he enters and then he leaves. We, therefore, can be either like the Rabbis or like Akiva in this tale. To quote Buber’s I-Thou, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuya all relate to Pardes on an I-It level, on the level of distant objectivity. That is the level that is actually dangerous, because it separates us from real experience. Akiva, on the other hand, crosses over and experiences - just as the High Priest in the Tabernacle is allowed to cross the boundary - albeit only at certain times and in certain ways. The boundary between the human and the Divine, between the finite and the Infinite, keeps us safe, but it is not intended to keep us out forever, but merely to guide us safely into the realm beyond and, importantly, to guide us back home. It serves as a warning to those who are not ready to enter, and also as an invitation to enter only for those who are prepared. The boundary is not a prohibition, it is a place of reflection and potential encounter, a place to ask ourselves if we are truly ready to cross over. For we have to cross over, we cannot gawp from afar dispassionately and objectively, for to do so would not be a genuine experience of the Divine.
So, we prepare ourselves as the High Priest does before entering the Holy of Holies. In every moment of our lives we face the boundary between the finite and the infinite. At every moment, we are asked the question Ayyeka – Where are you? (Gen. 3:9) – are you now ready to cross over the boundary and truly experience Me?  At that moment of crossing over, perhaps only then can we truly fulfil one mitzvah expressed in this week’s Torah portion – k’doshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem – Be holy, be distinct, be separate [from this limited existence] for I, the Eternal your God am holy, am distinct, am separate [from this limited existence] (Lev. 19:2).
This Shabbat, then, may we take tentative steps toward the boundary of existence by reflecting on ourselves and by preparing ourselves spiritually. May we not participate in Jewish ritual and study from afar but up close, with all our heart and all our soul and all our might. May we prepare ourselves to enter the inner chamber (Avot 4:16), so that may God delight in our steps (Ps. 37:23), and let us say, Amen.

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