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Two Minutes of Torah: Acharei Mot - What's behind the curtain?

In the popular TV show Let’s Make a Deal contestants face a dilemma of selecting between a prize that they know and the mystery of a potential prize behind the curtain. They have to choose whether to go with what's behind the curtain or stick with what's in their hand. Often the draw of the mystery of what might be behind the curtain is enough to have the contestant risk it all and go for that unknown prize.

In our tradition we can argue whether there is a mystery behind the curtain. We do traditionally have a curtain in our synagogue and it is the curtain that covers the our Aron Hakodesh – the holy ark where the Torah is kept. Listening recently to another podcast, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner talked about a time when he had to stop a lesson with school children early and said the next week we'll find out what's behind the curtain. The teacher contacted him the next day and shared that the children were fascinated to know what was actually behind the curtain., and had come up with all sorts of different ideas about what the Rabbi was hiding from them.

We might date this mystery back to the curtain in this week’s Torah portion. In the aftermath of the death of Aaron’s sons God speaks to Moses and says: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover’ (Lev. 16:2). In this way, while Aaron has access to the Holy of Holies and is the High Priest of the entire community he is still limited in when he can come behind that curtain.

The sense of mystery of what is behind the curtain is specified as God’s presence is in the cloud over the cover. Aaron would at least have the opportunity, on occasion, to go behind the curtain. But the people are one step further removed from the Tabernacle, and this must have served to heighten the mystery of what was really going on in the service of God.

Today in our community we might wonder what the place of mystery really is. Do people want to have something hidden behind a curtain or do they want to have access to go behind the curtain? I am always struck by the wide eyes of children who see the Torah scrolls when the Ark is opened. There is something special about the Torah because it is kept separate, in the Ark. But at the same time it is not the mystery of what is behind the curtain., it is the mystery of what the Torah really is. And perhaps this is the important thing.

It is not simply about having a mystery behind the curtain, but it is about the sanctity the sacredness the specialness of the Torah that is so important, and even our youngest children grasp this with their wide eyes. The challenge for us as grown ups, who look at the world through older eye, is to still see that wonder each and every time the Torah is before us.

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