This week’s parshas present the comprehensive list of forbidden liaisons/relationships (Acharei, Chap. 18 and Kedoshim, Chap 20 with their various attendant spiritual penalties).
When you get down to it, there is quite the salient sexual subtext and its connection to family to the Bible. The message, however, is not what you would expect: in a reversal of Freud (“sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar”), sometimes—or even most of the time—sex is not just about sex.
In the interests of brevity, I would put it this way: sefer Bereishis details a myriad of inappropriate relationship between everybody and the struggle (or complete lack theoreof) to find appropriate ones (which Avraham’s progeny were better at, though certainly not perfectly). Sefer Shemos continues the theme, albeit in a amore limited way: witness the detail dedicated to Moshe and Aharon’s family lineage in Va’era.
In Vayikra, however, we don’t get to dealing with sex until now—mostly because most of the halachos have been essentially all dealing with ben adam la-Makom. I don’t thnk that that’s a complele accident; the Torah presents a series of atonement-eliciting services—from everyday korbanos to Yom Kippur—creating, as it were, the refuah before the makah.
There are a number of other subtexts I can briefly touch upon in this vein: the notion that sex isn’t always about sex but (at least, certainly in the time of Matan Torah) is tied up with family, politics, and culture—hence “maaseh eretz Mitzrayim” and “maaseh eretz Cana’an”. The Egyptian political dynasties were specifically doctrinally incestuous (talk about keeping it in the family. One might even detect a more modern propensity among the pre-World War I monarchies to marry each other’s cousins, and the preponderance of hemophilia that resulted).
I however, will focus on one aspect of the story: why the “master list” of Chapter 18 ended up in Acharei Mos. Did it have anything to do with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu?
One of the reason given for Nadav and Avihu incurring Divine displeasure was their reluctance to marry: no one was good enough for them. Now, this is one among many reason given for their demise, so it would be a bit of a stretch to say that it was the proximate cuase; however, if one examines the other reasons given—particularly, their thoughts that “when are these old men going to die so we can get our rightful positions as leaders”—indicate a degree of spiritual arrogance to which their reluctance to marry is not unrelated.
(Should one say they had the “Kohen excuse”—that it made it harder for them to get married because of the extra restrictions—one can easily counter that they were probably the most desirable single men on the shidduch market at the time.)
However, I would take it a step further: I think Nadav and Avihu, to a degree, became risk-averse; they were becoming protective of their rightfully gained spiritual standing (this, as opposed to say, Korach, who was trying to arrogate to himself something that wasn’t his). They therefore didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize that standing (even if it meant not getting married, because they might end up with someone not necessarily commensurate with said lofty position). This might explain why they mused about the eventual deaths of Moshe and Aharon: they were already treating their position as a familial property (which it was, but only to a point). The mida k’neged mida was that they ended up actually taking a risk where it proved to be absolutely fatal.
One of the hardest things in life to do is distinguish between necessary and unnecessary risk. However, the aforementioned all but proves that absolute risk avoidance is all but impossible, and not even spiritually desirable. In parshas Tzav we saw that even the most sublime of services—the Olah—has inevitable detritus needing cleanup, the deshen; not necessarily a good deed not going unpunished, but having inevitable side effects. Here in Acharei we see that that risk isn’t a “side effect”: its part and parcel of spirituality.