Parshat Acharei Mot opens with a detailed description of the Yom Kippur service on the part of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). It seems strange that this narrative is prefaced with a reference to the earlier death of the two sons of Aharon. We have already been informed of their passing, and are aware that God's speaking to Moshe regarding the Yom Kippur service takes place after that event. Why, then, does the Torah begin this passage with the words אחרי מות שני בני אהרן, "after the death of the two sons of Aharon?" ()ויקרא ט"ז:א.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (יומא א:א) explains that the death of Aharon's sons is placed next to the Yom Kippur service to teach us that just as the day of Yom Kippur atones for the Jewish people, so too the death of tzadikim atones for the Jewish people.
This parallel begs explanation. How does the death of righteous individuals atone for an entire nation?
Rabbi Baruch Epstein (תורה תמימה, ויקרא טז:א) attempts to answer this perplexing question with a beautiful insight from Pirkei D'Rebbe Eliezer. The תנך (Bible) relates that the Jewish people buried the bones of King Saul, and afterward God responded to their prayers )שמואל ב', כ"א, י"ד). Pirkei D'Rabb Eliezer suggests that it was only after the Jewish people buried King Saul, when God witnessed their fasting and crying and eulogizing him, that extended mercy to the land. Similarly, says Rabbi Epstein, it is not the death of a tzadik itself which possesses the power to atone, rather it is God's witnessing His people's proper treatment of and respect for the deceased, which arouses His mercy and effects the power of atonement.
This Shabbat we read Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. The old joke is that we tend to follow this sequence. When people are alive, we treat them poorly; only when they die, Acharei Mot, do we treat them as Kedoshim, with due respect and dignity.
What an unfortunate reality this is. If only we would treat the living in the same manner as we treat the dead! Perhaps then we wouldn't need to wait for the death of tzadikim to achieve atonement!
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l shares a similar idea regarding the song Dayenu at the Seder. The poem follows this simple formula: If only God had given us (or done for us) A, and had not given us B, it would be enough for us; we would have benefited from A alone. Every stanza of Dayenu fits this formula except for one: אלו קרבנו לפני הר סיני ולא נתן לנו את התורה, "If only He had brought us to Mount Sinai but had not given us the Torah, it would have been enough for us". How could the arrival at Sinai without the receiving of the Torah be beneficial for us? Imagine going to a baseball game, only to find out upon arrival at the stadium that the game has been called off. Who would be satisfied with such an experience?
The Rav z"l directs us to the Torah's description of out encampment at Sinai. There we are told, in the singular verb form, ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר, "and he camped there opposite the mountain (שמות, י"ט, ב')." On this verse Rashi comments that at Sinai all Israel camped as one man with one heart. We were all united; we had achieved - albeit for a short time - achdut. Surely, this incredible accomplishment is reason to proclaim "Dayenu!"
As we are now approaching Zman Matan Torateinu, (the celebration of our receiving the Torah) our goal is to strive to once again achieve this aspect of the Sinai experience. Let us treat each other with dignity and respect, in the hope that we may once again be as one man with one heart.