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Torah Sparks

Parashot Aharei Mot-Kedoshim
April 20, 2013 – 10 Iyar 5773

Annual: Leviticus 16:1-20:27 (Etz Hayim p. 679; Hertz p. 480)
Triennial: Leviticus 19:15-20:27 (Etz Hayim p. 696; Hertz p. 500)
Haftarah (A): Amos 9:7-15 (Etz Hayim p. 706; Hertz p. 509)
Haftarah (S): Ezekiel 20:2-20 (Etz Hayim p. 714; Hertz p. 511)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Parashat Acharei Mot is familiar as the Torah reading for Yom Kippur. The parashah begins with a detailed description of the Yom Kippur ritual conducted by the high priest. The sanctuary is purified; the priest atones for himself, his household, and the community of Israel by means of expiatory sacrifices. The central ritual of the day involves the designation of two he-goats. One – for the Lord – is sacrificed as a sin offering. The sins of the Israelites are transferred symbolically to the second goat – for Azazel, popularly known as the scapegoat. That goat is sent off into the wilderness, where it is set free, carrying away the transgressions of the people Israel. The annual observance of Yom Kippur as a day for atonement and self-denial is prescribed as a permanent, sacred rite.

Chapter 17 deals with the prohibition against the consumption of blood and carrion and the centralization of the sacrificial cult, and lists the dire sanctions for violation of these norms. Acharei Mot concludes with a detailed list of forbidden sexual practices among them the various degrees of incestuous relationships and other illicit unions. This code of sexual mores distinguishes Israel from the paradigmatically degenerate nations of Egypt and Canaan, and its neglect is deemed grounds for expulsion from the Promised Land.

Parashat Kedoshim opens with the global commandment that gives the Torah portion its name: "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy." Kedoshim has been described as "a brief Torah" and as a reworking of the Decalogue, because many of the Torah's basic teachings are to be found in these two chapters. It provides the way to achieve the goals of national and individual holiness. Among the wide-ranging commandments in this parashah are reverence for parents, observance of the Sabbath, and the prohibitions against idolatry and false oaths: all echoes of the Ten Commandments. Also included are laws about the well-being offering, and the requirement to leave gleanings and designated areas of fields unharvested for the hungry poor. Various forms of deception and fraud are prohibited, as well as withholding a worker's wages. Exploiting the vulnerable is prohibited in the twin commandments against cursing the deaf and placing a stumbling block before the blind. Various aspects of justice are explored, including the requirement to favor neither the poor nor the rich, and the obligation to reproach a wrongdoer. The parashah includes a number of agriculturally based commandments including the law of orlah – the prohibition against consuming fruit produced by a tree less than 4 years old. Tattooing is prohibited, as is cutting gashes in flesh. The latter prohibition is understood by the rabbis to refer also to the creation of mutually exclusive and hostile sects or subdivisions within the Jewish community, which would be tantamount to unsightly and unhealthy wounds to the Jewish body politic.

Further commandments include the prohibition against necromancy, as well as the requirement to show deference to the elderly. The fundamental Jewish value of relating to the stranger with love is prescribed and linked to the Jewish national experience of being strangers in Egypt. The obligation for honest business practices, especially honest weights and measures, is also provided.

Theme #1: "Clarity Begins at Home"

"Aaron is to offer his own bull of purification offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household." (Leviticus 16:6 – Acharei Mot)

Derash: Study

"When the Torah says that the Kohen Gadol (high priest) worked for forgiveness of himself, his family and of the nation as a whole, one should wonder why he couldn't just work on forgiveness for everyone, which would also clearly include himself and his family…. Before we can think about fixing the world, we need to fix ourselves and our immediate surroundings…. A single positive action can have the affect of improving ourselves, our families, AND the nation! …Finding ways to improve ourselves has a cumulative affect far greater than the improvements themselves." (Rabbi Shlomo Ressler)

The midrash takes the words 'for himself and his household' to mean that the High Priest must be married. He comes before God, not as a pious individual but as the representative of a flawed community aspiring to holiness. How could he bear their prayers and hopes unless he had learned to care for and share the hopes and dreams of another person? (Chumash Etz Hayim)

We worry about our homes, whether they are comfortable enough, big enough, modern enough, luxurious enough. But do we worry whether they are secure enough to create the abiding values of wisdom, love and understanding, the character-building influences that will enable our children to withstand the bombardment of tinsel and sham and pretense? (Rabbi Richard C. Hertz)

Jewishness is my home. I mean the people, their lives, their learning. My home is Jewish history, Jewish character, Jewish fate. (Aharon Appelfeld)

Family comes before everything. If my son comes home from the army, he is my first priority. All other engagements of the family come before writing. (A. B. Yehoshua, after winning the Israel Prize for Literature)

Questions for Discussion

What is the significance of the priest's initial atonement for himself and his family? A reminder of his humanity and that which is of primary concern to his spiritual charges? A reminder by their priestly role model to the Israelite people of their proper priorities? A recognition that all meaningful societal change hinges on the family unit?

Appelfeld's tribute to his "home" is very moving! How does it relate to our verse… and to the rest of the Kohen Gadol's Yom Kippur ritual? What can our congregations (and we personally) do to help more Jews embrace this perspective?

Is family – as A. B. Yehoshua avers – always our first priority? Are there values and commitments that trump family loyalty?

What "abiding values" (a la Rabbi Hertz) should our homes instill in our children? What specific steps do you take to assure the success of your personal program of moral education and character-building? What such measures do you most value (or most regret were lacking) in your own upbringing?

Respond to Chumash Etz Hayim. What are the personal indicators of spiritual maturity and emotional intelligence to be sought in religious leaders… in those who "bear our prayers and hopes"?

Theme #2: "It's a Dutiful Day in this Neighborhood"

"Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou shalt earnestly rebuke thy neighbor, lest thou bear sin on account of him." (Leviticus 19:17 – Darby Translation – Kedoshim)

Derash: Study

In rebuking another, do not treat him as a wicked man, but emphasize his dignity, making him understand that the wrong he committed was beneath his dignity. Only thus will your rebuke have the desired effect. This, then, is the thought Scripture seeks to convey: if you rebuke a man, regard him as 'thy neighbor' – as your friend and your equal, and do not 'bear sin on account of him' – treating him like a sinner, lest he turn aside from you entirely and you will have accomplished nothing. (Havot Yair)

When you rebuke your neighbor, rebuke yourself at the same time. Know that you, too, have a share in his transgression. Do not cast the entire burden of sin upon him. Only if you will feel guilty and repent together with him will your rebuke persuade him to repent also. (Sefat Emet)

In rebuking another, address him in keeping with his qualities, his intellectual abilities, and his character. Do not rebuke another person in terms of your own qualities. 'Thou shalt earnestly rebuke thy neighbor' – rebuke him as your neighbor – as he is and not as you are. (Quoted in Maayanah Shel Torah)

We tolerate without rebuke the vices with which we have grown familiar. (Publilius Syrus)

Little boldness is needed to assail the opinions and practices of notoriously wicked men; but to rebuke great and good men for their conduct, and to impeach their discernment, is the highest effort of moral courage. (William Lloyd Garrison)

Questions for Discussion

The religious obligation to rebuke others for wrongdoing is especially difficult in a culturally diverse, religiously pluralistic, secular democracy! Is this mitzvah a safeguard against moral relativism? Is it thus even more urgent in a pluralistic society?

How might Publilius Syrus (a first Century Roman author) explain the Commandment to rebuke sinners? Is the Commandment intended for the benefit of the rebuker or the rebuked?

Why is it particularly difficult to rebuke those who have attained a measure of personal greatness and moral standing (see Garrison)? Is it merely a matter of speaking the truth to power – daring to offend those who may have power over us, our well-being, our material wherewithal? Or do we value their positive contributions over moral principle?

How do we share in responsibility for wrong-doing perpetrated by others (see Sefat Emet)… sin in which we do not personally engage? Is failure to rebuke itself an act of complicity? Which sins demand our unfailing and immediate rebuke? Which are "none of our business"?

Consider the comment anthologized in Maayanah Shel Torah: How are we to moderate or modify our rebukes, our moral perspective, based on the character or intellect of those whose actions we find objectionable? Is this a matter of pragmatism (compare Havot Yair)? Moral sensitivity? Indulgent understanding? Spiritual and moral humility?

Historic Note

Parashat Acharei Mot, read on April 20, 2013, describes the ritual of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, first conducted by Aaron in the Tabernacle and later by his successors in the Temple in Jerusalem. On April 20, 1799, during the siege of Acre, Napoleon issued a decree calling for the re-establishment of Jerusalem as a sovereign Jewish city.

Halachah L'Maaseh

While Yom Kippur – with its ritual origins described in Parashat Acharei Mot – is a solemn day of self-denial, the day preceding the fast is customarily treated as a joyous occasion, "a sign of our confidence in God's mercy" (Rabbi Isaac Klein, Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, 207, citing Tur and Levush, Orach Chaim 604). The day is marked by particularly festive and ample meals. "Just as it is a mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur, it is a mitzvah to eat on the day preceding Yom Kippur" (BT Yoma 81A). Two conflicting explanations have been offered for the abundant meals consumed on Erev Yom Kippur. Tur, Levush, and Rabbi Joel Sirkes argue that ample food is necessary to sustain the worshipper through the next day's fast. Aruch Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 604:4), however, posits that the pattern of indulgence on the day before Yom Kippur actually makes the fast more difficult, enhancing our fulfillment of the Torah's command to "afflict our souls" (Leviticus 23:27).

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