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The Shabbat of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, portions which are generally read together except when there is a Leap Year in the kabbalistic calendar, is a Shabbat of overwhelming Light and joy.
The Zohar states that when the students of Rav Shimon bar Yochai came to the Shabbat of Kedoshim, they were filled with a joy unlike any other Shabbat of the year. So, before we can even begin to understand the gifts given to us this week, we need to be aware that there is something tremendously exceptional that takes place.
The reading of Acharei Mot begins with, “The Creator spoke to Moses acharei mot (after the death) of the two sons of Aaron,” Nadab and Avihu. As we talked about during the portion of Shmini, if you look at the deaths of Nadab and Avihu on a literal level, it does not seem joyful; however, when we delved deeper we understood why it is, in fact, a very joyful occasion.
We also spoke about the death of Rav Akiva. While his skin was being scraped off his body with metal combs by the Romans, some of his students came to him and cried, “We cannot stand this, how can this be happening?” To which Rav Akiva reminded them that it says in the Shema prayer we have to have love for the Creator even if He takes our soul, and that, “this verse has caused me pain all my life and now that I have the opportunity to live out its words, I want to grab it.” The Midrash tells us that as Rav Akiva finished saying the Shema, ending with the word Echad, which means “one” or “unity,” his soul left his body.
Rav Israel of Regin explains that when we say the Shema in the morning and evening, we are supposed to achieve a level of devekut - complete union - of our soul with the Light of the Creator. Rav Akiva achieved this level of devekut absolutely. When he recited the Shema each morning and evening, he came to the point where his soul wanted to leave his body because he had achieved this complete unification with the Creator; his soul had no desire to remain in its body, but he knew that he still had work to do in this world, so he would stop it from leaving.
But when Rav Akiva saw that the Romans were going to finish off his body anyway, he said, “I don’t have to stop my soul from leaving my body anymore. I can allow my soul to completely reunite with the Light of the Creator.” The Romans did not kill Rav Akiva; rather, he allowed his soul to leave his body. And the Zohar says that as we connect to this story, we are awakening this Light of devekut within ourselves.
The Ohr HaChaim (Rav Chaim ben Attar, 1696–1743) explains that the level of devekut Rav Akiva achieved with the Creator was not the same as what Nadab and Avihu experienced. Unlike Rav Akiva, it was not their time to attain that unification with the Light; they still had more work to do. However, they decided on their own that they wanted to achieve that devekut right then and there. The Ohr HaChaim tells us they experienced many different levels of love, pleasure, sweetness, and Light until it was too late for their souls to return to their bodies. What Nadab and Avihu experienced was the only real thing in this world - a true connection to the Light of the Creator.
For some of us this might be a concept that is frightening or beyond our level of understanding, but this sense of devekut - complete unification with the Light of the Creator - IS the purpose of our lives, andthe gift of this Shabbat. We need to come to the level of Rav Akiva where we can achieve 99 percent devekut with the Light of the Creator, yet stop ourselves from leaving our bodies, knowing that we still have more work to do.
It is also no coincidence that the secret power of the ketoret, incense, is also revealed on this Shabbat. We are told by the Talmud that when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the gift of the Torah, all the angels also gave him a gift, including the Angel of Death, who gave him the secret of the ketoret. The Zohar explains that the word ketoret comes from the word hitkashrut - bonding, devekut - and has the power to remove plagues from the world.
The ketoret was the physical manifestation of the spiritual work of devekut done by Nadab and Avihu. Their death brought down a bridge to the Light of devekut in our world - and that bridge is the ketoret. As such, the Zohar teaches us that when we recite the words of the ketoret connection, we connect to the Light that Nadab and Avihu revealed.
Why is this secret revealed on this Shabbat? Because it is the Light of complete unification with the Creator; when we become completely unified with the Light of the Creator, there is no death. The Angel of Death told Moses that through the power of the ketoret he could awaken a connection for the entire world to the ultimate level of unification - Bila Hamavet Lanetzach, the Removal of Death. The Ramban also tells us that ultimately, this is the Shabbat where we can achieve physical immortality. Think about it -this is the only Shabbat of the year with the name Acharei-Mot, “after death.” So through our elevation in the Supernal Worlds this Shabbat, we achieve the level of Acharei-Mot, of being “after death,” of working toward achieving physical immortality.
We have a tremendous responsibility on this Shabbat, therefore, to reawaken the secret power of the ketoret, the secret of Acharei-Mot, and to bring the consciousness of being beyond death to the world. But at the same time, Shabbat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim is also not so much about an understanding; it is, rather, a Shabbat that is overwhelmed… overwhelmed with love, overwhelmed with joy, and overwhelmed with devekut.