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Torah Sparks

April 26, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Lev. 16:1 - 18:30 (Hertz, p. 480; Etz Hayim, p. 679)
Triennial Cycle II: Lev. 17:1 - 18:30 (Hertz, p. 485; Etz Hayim, p. 685)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 22:1 - 19 (Hertz, p. 494; Etz Hayim, p. 709)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Torah Portion Summary

(16:1-28) The order of worship on Yom Kippur, including the sacrifices and the practice of the scapegoat.

(16:29-34) Laws and practices of Yom Kippur, including the command to fast.

(17:1-16) The prohibition of slaughtering animals any place except the Altar; the prohibition of eating blood, or eating any animal which has died (nevelah) or been torn (trefah).

(18:1-30) A warning to keep away from all idolatrous practices; a list of the categories of forbidden marriage and other forbidden sexual relationships, followed by a general warning to avoid abominable behavior and follow God's ways.

(9:1-24) Concluding the narrative of the ordination of Aaron and his sons as kohanim. On the eighth and final day of ceremonies, Moses instructs Aaron and the Israelites in the proper rituals of consecration. Aaron offers a sin-offering for himself, then Aaron. His sons offer a sin-offering on behalf of the people. Moses and Aaron bless the people. The Kavod (glory) of God descends upon the Tabernacle.

Discussion Theme: Assimilation

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I the Lord am your God. You shall not copy the practices of the landof Egypt where you dwelt, or the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the Lord am your God.” (Lev. 18:1-4)


  1. You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out. You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them. (Lev. 20:22-23)
  2. The substance of this mitzvah is that we should not behave like them in our way of dress and our conduct. As it was taught in the Midrash Sifra (13:9), “neither shall you walk in their customs”—that you should not follow their practices in matters that are established for them, such as theaters, circuses, and amphitheater spectacles. These are all forms of sport and entertainment that they enact in their mass gatherings, when they assemble to commit lunatic acts, immorality, and idol-worship... In the language of the Midrash Sifre (on Deut 12:30 “take head to yourself that you be not ensnared to follow them”) “ensnared to follow them” — perhaps you will emulate them and do things like them; and so they will be a snare for you. Thus you should not say, “Since they go out in velvet, I will go out in velvet”; “because they go out in helmets, I will go out in a helmet”—this being one of the pieces of armor of the horsemen. In the phrasing of the Books of the Prophets, “I will punish…all who clothe themselves in foreign attire” (Zephaniah 1:8). At the root of the mitzvah lies the purpose to have us move away from them and despise all their customs, even the way of dress. (Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah #262)
  3. The deeds of the Canaanites and Egyptians were the most abominable of all the nations. The apparent implication is that there is no harm in imitating the foul deeds of nations that are not evil—but this cannot be so. By singling out these two nations, the Torah teaches Jews never to think complacently that as long as they do not commit the vulgar and obscene sins epitomized by Canaan and Egypt, they will not be corrupted by lesser sins. By focusing on the worst nations, the Torah indicates that sin is a progressive process: “Ordinary” transgressions inevitably lead to more serious ones, until the sinner descends to the morass of Canaan and Egypt. Thus, a Jew must scrupulously avoid even the first step on the road to corruption. (Moshe Feinstein, Lev. 18:3)
  4. Bar Kapparah said: Owing to four factors were the people of Israel redeemed from the land of Egypt: they did not alter their names; they did not change their language; they did not spread malicious gossip; they were free of sexual license (some add: and they did not change their distinctive form of clothing). (Midrash Mechilta Bo Chapter 5)
  5. Bar Kapparah (in contrast to the above statement by him) said: Let the words of Torah be uttered in the language of Japheth (Greek) in the tents of Shem. (Genesis Rabbah 36:8)
  6. For if creation in time were demonstrated—if only as Plato understands creation—all the overhasty claims made to us on this point by the philosophers would become void. In the same way, if the philosophers would succeed in demonstrating eternity as Aristotle understands it, the Law as a whole would become void and a shift to other opinions would take place. (Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, 2:26)
  7. After the Hellenization of the Near East, Jews frequently adopted Greek names…W hen the time came for Judah the Maccabee to choose ambassadors to Rome, who could best represent his Hebraic policies, he chose two men with the good Jewish names of Jason and Eupolemos… In the time of the Mishna, most Jews did not speak Hebrew... While many spoke Aramaic, countless others spoke Greek and no other language, so much so that even in the Holy Land, rabbis were very often forced to preach in Greek... In the Temple the coffers used for the contribution of the annual half-shekel were marked, according to reliable testimony, not alef, bet, gimmel but alpha, beta, gamma, obviously in order to make those coffers intelligible to all Temple personnel... Later on, Arabic replaced Greek and Aramaic in countries under Muslim domination... Professor Elias Bickerman, the great modern Jewish Hellenist, has stressed that Alexandrian Jewry was unique in that it alone of all Hellenistic ethnic groups was able to survive as a living culture, and that it was able to do so precisely because of its ability to translate its culture, that is, to undergo a considerable amount of assimilation... A frank appraisal of the periods of great Jewish creativity will indicate that not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity and creativity, but that in a profound sense this assimilation or acculturation was even a stimulus to original thinking and expression and, consequently, a source of renewed vitality. To a considerable degree, the Jews survived as a vital group and as a pulsating culture because they changed their names, their language, their clothing and with them some of their patterns of thought and expression... In the great challenge of assimilation in the Gaonic period the leadership followed the same procedure... In defending the traditions of Judaism, Saadiah appealed to reason and philosophy no less than to authority and precedent. In doing so, he not only appropriated intellectual tools from the surrounding Arabic world, but he himself helped to accelerate the process of assimilation of rabbinic Judaism to the canons and tastes of the intellectual Arabic society.” (Gerson D. Cohen “The Blessing of Assimilation”)

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

Assimilation is typically a negatively charged word in the contemporary Jewish world. Yet, from Biblical times to modern times, the Jewish community has always appropriated new forms and ideas for the sake of our own growth and enrichment. Maimonides, for example, considered Aristotelian philosophy the most perfect intellectual tradition available to human beings and would have been prepared to reinterpret the biblical story of creation if Aristotle had provided a valid demonstration for the eternity of the universe. How do we properly channel assimilation so that it can be a blessing and not a curse? How do we balance the highly challenging intellectual power of the outside world with its enriching power to renewed creativity in the Jewish world?

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