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The portion Acharei Mot, “After the death,” begins after the two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Avihu, left this world. The literal story is that they died as a punishment to Aaron. When speaking about this portion, the Midrash begins with a verse from Proverbs which says that punishing a righteous person is not good; the Creator says that even though He punished Aaron and took away his two children, it’s not the best or right way for things to go. And then the Midrash quotes the end of this verse, “But rather the best thing to do is to hit those who share, those who give in the right way.” So, the kabbalists tell us the right way to understand the secret of the portion Acharei Motis to understand this verse in Proverbs.
There are two parts to the verse. The first part says that it's not a good or right thing to give punishment to a righteous person, to somebody who is on the spiritual path and doing what they can and need to do to connect to the Light of the Creator. Instead, and this is what the secret of this verse is, the best way is to hit somebody in the straight way. What does that mean?
There are people who have to go through pain and difficulties; that's one way a person can become awakened. But the second, it says, is to be “hit in a straight way.” One of Rav Brandwein’s ancestors explains this verse, saying that if the Creator gives an individual challenges, difficulty, and pain, it is because that person has to cleanse. That is the only reason pain exists, the only reason any person experiences pain. It's important to remember this every single time we experience any type of pain. The first, or the second thought, if it's too difficult to do right away, is “I’m happy this is happening. This is coming to me to cleanse.”
However, even though pain has a purpose – to both cleanse the individual and awaken him to a greater connection - when a person experiences pain and challenges, it can also hinder his spiritual work, and he therefore cannot do the spiritual work as it should be done. So, what is the best solution? For the Creator to send endless blessings to the individual.
An individual, after experiencing all the goodness and blessings that the Creator is giving him, will say, “I cannot believe that I'm receiving all these blessings and all this Light. Even though I don't deserve it and even though I've done all kinds of negative things, the Creator still shines all this Light and all these blessings on me.” Then the individual is awakened, because he knows how much he’s done of a negative nature, how little his spiritual work is, how little he pushes himself, yet nevertheless sees all these blessings that the Creator shines down upon him. As such, he says he has to change, and that he can't keep going like that while the Creator keeps shining all these blessings and Light on him and he’s not changing or growing.
So, there are two ways for an individual to be awakened, to change, to grow, to cleanse. One, the more common one, which usually wakes up more people than the other path, is through pain and challenges. The purpose of pain, as we said, is two-fold: to both cleanse the negativity that the individual has done in this and previous lives, and to awaken the individual to connect more, to change more, to grow more. That's one path of transformation.
The other path, where the individual receives so much Light and so many blessings he knows he has not earned and that his negativity should not allow him to receive, then says that because of it, he has to become awakened. That's the second type of awakening, and the meaning of the verse which says it's not good when somebody who's trying to be on the spiritual path is punished. Because through the pain, the individual will be able to do less of this.
When a person is in pain, when a person is depressed, when a person is down, it's more difficult to do the spiritual work. And this is why King Solomon says in Proverbs that the best way is for the “hit” to come from good things. The best thing to ask for is that the Creator gives us such an overabundance of blessings, Light, and gifts that it causes us therefore to say, “I have to change.” That is the secret of the first words in the portion Acharei Mot. And the Creator gives us the ability on this Shabbat is to push away the awakenings that come through pain so that the awakenings can come only from goodness.