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Torah Sparks

May 5, 2012 – 13 Iyyar 5772

Annual: Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 679; Hertz p. 480)
Triennial: Leviticus 17:8 – 19:14 (Etz Hayim, p. 687; Hertz p. 486)
Haftarah: Amos 9:7 – 15 (Etz Hayim, p. 706; Hertz p. 509)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Parashat Acharei Mot is familiar because it is the Torah reading for Yom Kippur. The parashah begins, aptly, 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 day’s central ritual involves the random designation of two hegoats. 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 Israel’s transgressions. 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. The chapter consists of a detailed list of forbidden sexual practices, among them incestuous and other illicit unions. This code of sexual mores distinguishes Israel from degenerate nations and its neglect is deemed grounds for expulsion from the Promised Land.

Parashat Kedoshim opens with the 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 Shabbat, and prohibitions against idolatry and false oaths. Laws about the well-being offering, and the requirement to leave gleanings and designated areas of fields unharvested for the hungry poor also are included. Forms of deception and fraud are prohibited, as are withholding a worker’s wages and exploiting the vulnerable. Aspects of justice are defined, 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 – prohibitions against crossbreeding livestock and planting a field with diverse species; shaatnez, wearing a garment that combines wool and linen; and 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.

Further commandments include the prohibition against necromancy, the requirement to show deference to the elderly, and the obligation for honest business practices. 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.

Theme #1: “Through Thick and Sin”

“Thus he shall purge the Shrine of the impurity and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their impurity.” (Leviticus 16:16 – Acharei Mot)

Derash: Study

“This was the concession made by God out of His love for Israel. He allowed His people to build an earthly residence for Him, on condition that its purity be strictly maintained. In a very real sense, this was the primary purpose of the entire biblical ritual of Yom Kippur.” (Baruch Levine, JPS Commentary)

“This verse implies that arrogance is a much more serious sin than any other transgression. For we are told here concerning sinners that the Tent of Meeting ‘abides with them in the midst of their impurity,’ meaning that even when Jews have been defiled by sin, the Lord still is in their midst. There is, however, one exception to this rule: when the sin is arrogance. For we are explicitly told (Psalm 101:5) that ‘whoever is haughty of eye and proud of heart, him I will not suffer.’ The Sages say: ‘I, the Lord, and the haughty cannot dwell together in this world.’” (Baal Shem Tov, citing Talmud Sota 5a)

“In the priestly view, the body exists in a constant state of flux, moving in and out of various states. On one end of the spectrum rests the state of impurity. Although specific practices dissolve physical impurities, the residue of impurity accumulates at the central ritual site. Misdeeds also cause a kind of moral impurity that individuals must purge through acts of atonement. Since Israel’s actions impact its sacred space, the Tent of Meeting – like the body – must undergo a period of purification and subsequent transformation. In this sense, the body and sacred space are parallel domains.” (Rachel Havrelock, in The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary)

“The unique personality which is the real life in me, I cannot gain unless I search for the real life, the spiritual quality, in others. I am myself spiritually dead unless I reach out to the fine quality dormant in others. For it is only with the god enthroned in the innermost shrine of the other, that the god hidden in me, will consent to appear.” (Felix Adler)

Questions for Discussion

How does Professor Levine’s commentary relate to the contemporary synagogue? What must we do to keep the “House of God” pure and worthy of the Divine Presence, notwithstanding the spiritual and moral shortcomings of individual Jews? How might the view that the purity of God’s “earthly residence” was the “primary purpose” of Yom Kippur be incorporated into our High Holy Day observance?

Is it fair to say that arrogance alone separates us from God’s presence? What other moral or religious offenses do you consider completely incompatible with experiencing the Divine? How would you paraphrase Sota: “I, the Lord, cannot dwell together in this world with… What? Whom?

It has often been said that the body is to be treated as a temple. In view of Rachel Havrelock’s comment, what does it mean to treat our temples – our synagogues, our congregations, our religious schools and communal institutions – like a body, or, perhaps more to the point, like a thoughtful, enlightened, spiritually sensitive human being?

How is Felix Adler’s statement particularly relevant to a discussion of the meaning of Yom Kippur?

Theme #2: “A Poor Excuse!” or “That’s Rich!”

“You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” (Leviticus 19:15 – Kedoshim)

Derash: Study

“The Torah emphasizes that the poor are better served by justice uncompromised by emotion. Judges must adhere to the law and not favor the poor, and others are obliged to reach out to the poor in charity. Love and compassion can supplement the rule of law, but cannot replace it.” (Chumash Etz Hayim)

“‘Judge your kinsman fairly.’ Your judgment should be righteous and not perverted. He who judges righteously consolidates the throne of the heavenly King, as it is written: ‘Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your Throne (Psalm 89:15); whereas he who perverts justice blemishes the Royal throne and offends the king. The Divine Presence abides with the righteous judge.” (Rabbeinu Bachya)

“The last command of the pasuk – judge your neighbor righteously – is explained by the sages as going far beyond the established judicial system. Throughout our days and our lives we are constantly ‘judging’ all that goes on around us. We judge other’s actions, words and even what we’re sure they are thinking. As such, we are in the ‘judging business’ far more extensively than any professional judge. The Torah thus commands us to judge others favorably.” (Rabbi Yisroel Ciner)

“After a long, impartial enquiry of the truth, and after much and earnest calling upon God, to give unto me the spirit and revelation in the knowledge of Him, I find myself obliged, both by the principles of reason and Scripture, to embrace the opinion I now hold forth.” (John Biddle)

“A God all mercy is a God unjust.” (Edward Young)

Questions for Discussion

Who – ultimately – is most harmed when the poor are favored by judges in the context of court decisions?

How do the mandates in these verses relate to discussions of wealth imbalance in contemporary society? To demands for the wealthy to bear greater tax burdens? How does the supplemental role of love and compassion figure into this discussion? Whose role is it to assure that this social supplement is adequately distributed?

In light of our verses, is it unreasonable or improper to bestow leadership roles and communal – and even liturgical – honors disproportionately upon those who, by virtue of their material wealth, contribute larger sums to our congregations (or might be persuaded to do so in the future)?

It’s an election year in the United States! Is it appropriate to take a candidate’s wealth and record of personal success in business into account in weighing her or his suitability for high office? Is a million- or billionaire more or less likely to understand the needs of everyday citizens? More or less likely to live up to the demands of these verses? Do we violate the spirit of scripture by judging candidates even in part on their material and business successes?

Historic Note

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim is read on May 5, 2012. Acharei Mot describes the observance of (and is also read on) Yom Kippur – the Holy Day with the most tenacious grip on even those Jews on the periphery of their religious heritage. Today is also celebrated as Cinco de Mayo (literally, May 5) a celebration of Mexican pride and heritage, freedom and democracy. This year it commemorates the 150th anniversary of the battle of Puebla, in which Mexican troops led by Ignacio Zaragoza halted a French invasion. Cinco de Mayo should not to be confused (as it often is) with Mexican Independence Day, observed on September 16.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Bathing seems to have been an integral element of the ritual of Yom Kippur described in Leviticus 16 (See verses 24, 26, 28). Bathing on Yom Kippur is, however, one of the central prohibitions of the Holy Day (see Talmud Yoma 11A; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 511:1) Rabbi Isaac Klein summarizes: “Bathing and washing of a pleasurable nature are forbidden (O.H. 613:1), but washing the hands and face for hygienic purposes is permitted (ibid.; Levush 613:1-3; Tur 613). The sick or those who have to bathe for medical reasons are permitted to do so” (Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 210).

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