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Torah Sparks

April 23, 2005 - 14 Nisan 5765

Annual: Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30 (Etz Hayim, p. 679; Hertz p. 480)
Triennial: Leviticus 16:1 - 17:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 679; Hertz p. 480)
Haftarah: Malakhi 3:4 - 24; 3:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 1296; Hertz p. 1005)

Prepared by Rabbi Elyse Winick
Assistant Director, USCJ KOACH/College Outreach

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Tazria and Metzora seem to be an aside when we reach Parashat Aharei Mot. Aharei Mot offers a continuation - a brief coda, really - to the story of the deaths of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu. The text refers to their death, almost in passing, before moving on with a discussion of priestly ritual. Moses is instructed to tell Aaron, the High Priest, that he may enter the Holy of Holies, God's dwelling place, only at a specific time. He must do so garbed in linen and after he has immersed in water. He then brings two goats as an offering, casting lots to select which will be sacrificed as a sin offering and which will be set free as the "goat for Azazel" in the wilderness. He first sacrifices a bull to atone for his own sins and the sins of his household. He sprinkles the blood of the bull, as well as of the sacrificial goat, in the Holy of Holies. No one else is permitted to enter. He then sprinkles the blood at the altar and the tabernacle. To set the second goat free in the wilderness, he lays his hands upon it and declares it to carry the sins of all Israel. Then it is led away and released. This ritual of atonement is to take place once a year.

No sacrifices are to be offered anywhere else without bringing one portion to the Mishkan. And sacrifices are only to be offered to God. The punishment for violating these precepts is karet, being cut off from the community.

No blood is to be eaten - blood is seen as the source of life. Even in nonsacrificial slaughter, the animal must be cleaned of all blood.

As we move forward in our knowledge of ritual purity, the Torah now defines which sexual relationships are permissible and which are forbidden. Following an enjoinder to leave behind the ways and statutes of Egypt, the list of forbidden relationships begins, ranging from intimacy with parents and siblings to step-siblings, aunts and uncles. We are forbidden from relationships with those who are related to us by blood and from relationships with those who are married to others. We are forbidden from child sacrifice and from, it appears, male homosexuality and bestiality. These transgressions are seen to defile the land; we are told the land will vomit out its inhabitants if the ordinances are not followed.

Discussion Theme 1: "A Goat for Azazel"

"Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man." (Leviticus 16:21)

Derash: Study

  • "After this confession, the goat designated for Azazel was given to the kohen assigned to lead it away into the wilderness. And when this kohen came to the designated ravine in the wilderness, he separated the thread of crimson wool which had been tied around the goat's horns. One half he tied to a rock there, and the other half he tied to the horns again. Then he pushed the goat into the ravine." (Mishnah Yoma 6:7, as quoted in Mahzor for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Rabbinical Assembly)
  • "[Azazel] is a strong and hard mountain with a high peak." (Rashi on Leviticus 16:8)
  • "What purpose does Avodah serve? Perhaps it is intended to keep alive the ancient tradition in the most vivid way possible and to reassure us that what we are doing today can achieve the same result as the most sacred ancient rituals." (Reuven Hammer, Entering the High Holy Days)
  • "The Avodah Service on Yom Kippur is a challenge to explore through words the dimensions of our people's ancient encounters with God. What was once a yearly experience of drama through detail is for us an outpouring of words in great detail, with the drama dependent on our own imaginations and our own ability to translate words into prayer." (Richard Levy, On Wings of Awe)
  • "Cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." (Micah 7:19)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. It is intriguing, though not surprising in the larger context of Vayikra, that atonement is achieved through an almost magical ritual, rather than through repentance, prayer and charity as our liturgy directs. What is the resonance of the symbolism of this ritual? In what ways would the ancients have had their needs met by this experience? What are the strengths and drawbacks of this approach?
  2. The term "scapegoat" has taken on additional significance over the course of history and few probably realize its origins. In what ways does contemporary usage reflect the original Biblical encounter? How might the original encounter influence our sensitivity to the practice of scapegoating?
  3. The poetic structure upon which most mahzorim base their Seder Avodah is called the Amitz Koah. It begins with a recounting of creation and history from Adam through Jacob. In what way is the story enriched by this context? How is our understanding of the Seder Avodah affected by it? On Rosh HaShanah we symbolically cast our sins into the sea. This Ashkenazi custom, originating in the fifteenth century (and adopted by Sephardim in the sixteenth century) stemmed from popular participation, rather than rabbinic direction. How is it similar to the scapegoat ritual?
  4. What might we learn from its source as a people-driven custom? How might we synthesize the two to augment their power and sanctity? (Note that The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has prepared material to enhance the Tashlikh ceremony, available on their website.)

Discussion Theme 2: "Choose Life"

"You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.'" (Leviticus 18:5)

Derash: Study

  • "And you shall live through them: This refers to the world to come, for if you would say in this world, is not his end death?" (Rashi, Leviticus 18:5)
  • "Rabbi Hiyya told the parable of a king who had an orchard, into which he brought workmen without revealing to them the wages for planting each of the several kinds of trees in the orchard. Had he revealed to them the reward for planting each kind of tree in the orchard, the workmen would have picked out the kind of tree for whose planting there was the greatest wage and would have planted it exclusively; as a result, the work of planting the orchard would have been neglected in one part and maintained in another part." (Midrash Tanhuma Ekev 2)
  • "Those who leave the concerns of this world and do not consider them, as if they were not human beings, focusing all of their thoughts and intentions on their Creator alone… their bodies and their souls will live on." (Ramban, Leviticus 18:5)
  • "How do we know that danger to life overrides the Sabbath? Said R. Yehudah in the name of Samuel: Since it is written: 'He shall live with them, and not die through them.'" (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 88b)
  • "Except for the prohibitions against murder, incest and adultery, and idolatry, any commandment must be set aside for pikkuah nefesh, to save a human life." (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a, as quoted in the Etz Hayyim humash)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Several different understandings of the phrase "v'hai bahem" ("he shall live through them" or "he shall live by them") are offered by traditional commentators. How do the texts listed above approach it?
  2. "Life," in this context, can be seen either as an instruction or as a reward. Which do you find more plausible? Which fits best with the tradition as we understand it?
  3. If we follow the perspective which says that life is not to be put in jeopardy by the fulfillment of these obligations, how do we reconcile this with the honor our tradition gives to martyrs? Thinking of Hannah and her sons, as we retell at Hanukkah, or of the story of Masada, are there ways in which these are extenuating circumstances?
  4. We might understand this verse to mean that the religious obligations which are incumbent upon us are a way of life, rather than simply something that we do. What steps might we take to further our journey to make Judaism integral to who we are, rather than something that we put on or take off as the moment requires?
  5. The demands of Jewish life are myriad. The midrash quoted above from Tanhuma is just one source which suggests that we are expected to fulfill all of the obligations upon us, rather than pick and choose by reward or even preference. How do we create a workable model for daily life in the face of such high expectations? What resources can we use to figure out how to prioritize the performance of mitzvot? What might the Jew by choice have to teach those who are born Jewish about the process of building a Jewish life and developing a sense of commitment?

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