Home>Jewish Living

Parashiyot Aharei Mot-Kedoshim

May 2, 2015 – 13 Iyyar 5775 

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC


Returning to the immediate aftermath of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths, Aaron is disallowed from entering the Holy of Holies at will. God instructs Moses to guide his brother and remaining nephews in a ritual for the Day of Atonement. Included in the ritual are two goats, one designatd for “Azazel,” which carries the burdens of the people’s sins. Yom Kippur is defined as a day of self-denial to make expiation for all Israelite sins.

General guidelines for sacrificing are detailed, including the need to present slaughtered animals to the Tabernacle, and to avoid consuming blood.

In an effort to avoid Egyptian or Canaanite laws, the people are instructed to steer clear from improper sexual relations, including incest and bestiality, lest the Promised Land become defiled.

One of the Torah’s seminal chapters, Leviticus 19 exhorts the Israelites to be holy because God is holy. Holiness is achieved, in part, by honoring our parents, protecting our children, rejecting idolatry, giving to the poor, offering sacrifices sincerely, and dealing with strangers and neighbors with decency and fairness.

The second part of the portion, Leviticus 20, returns to some of the same themes, focusing heavily on sexual ethics and avoiding idolatry.

Theme #1: Don’t Walk Like an Egyptian

You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of 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. (Leviticus 18:3-4)

God challenges the Chosen People to remain unique, even when surrounded by those whose practices are completely different.

During the reign of Czar Nicholas I of Russia, a decree was issued by the government that Jews were required to wear hats with visors (or brims) just like Gentiles. This created a storm among the Jews: “A Gentile law” -- “Let him be killed rather than transgress.” [During times of persecution people can die even over something as trifling as a shoelace.] Chasidim sat in the study house of Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk in heated and furious debate. Some were religiously strict, others lenient. Suddenly, the rebbe opened the door and asked, “Why the commotion? What has happened?” They replied to him that the government had issued a decree that Jews must change the way they dress, and clothe themselves like Gentiles. “The clothing of Jews is only tallis and tefillin,” snapped the rebbe. And he closed the door as he left. -- Menachem Mendl of Kotsk

The passage should be interpreted in its plain sense. If you follow the practices of the Egyptians -- for what purpose did I bring you out of Egypt? If you follow the practices of the Canaanites, why should I expel them for your sakes? On this condition did I bring you out of Egypt and on this condition did I drive out the Canaanites -- that you should not emulate their deeds. -- Be’er Yitzhak

Those non-Jewish practices and insights which strengthen Jewish survival, which sensitize us as a people, which teach us how to be loving, caring, and sensitive, which increase our understanding of Judaism and prompt us to practice it fully, pose no threat to our Jewishness. On the contrary, we benefit from their inclusion. An openness to learn, however, should not be mistaken for the blind adoption of all Gentile standards. … Much in modern life deserves our opposition. But insights that strengthen Torah, that make Jewish identity vibrant and central, deserve our study and our adoption. -- Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah

Questions for Discussion:

In the story above, Menachem Mendl of Kotsk feels that rules regarding "Jewish fashion" are irrelevant, as long as Jews are allowed to continue wearing ritual garments at the appropriate times. Do religious freedoms supersede the freedom to express our Jewish culture? Or are they one and the same? Is Menachem Mendl's reaction helpful to those who have just had a sense of independence taken away from them?

Be'er Yitzhak notes that Jewish independence and Jewish uniqueness go hand in hand. But is it important to act differently than other nations just for the sake of remaining different? Are there matters of style that do not impact religious observance?

Rabbi Artson attempts to strike a balance between the adoption of sensible non-Jewish practices and simply doing everything that non-Jews do for the sake of convenience. Can we safely adopt the idea of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" in modern society better than we have been able to in the past? What is the line that separates sensible non-Jewish practice and watering Judaism down so much that it is unrecognizable?

Theme #2: Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My sabbaths: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 19:2-3)

In Leviticus 19, perhaps the ultimate treatise on holiness in the Hebrew Bible, imitating God begins with revering one's parents.

What is the relationship here between revering parents and keeping Shabbat? An explanation may be found in Leviticus Rabbah 14:5, which reads: “King David said before the Holy One, ‘Lord the Universe, did my father, Jesse, have the intention of bringing me into being?’ Wasn’t his intention really just his own pleasure? And you know that this is so because after they had satisfied their desire, he turned his face in one direction and she turned her face in the other! … And this is what David meant when he said in Psalm 27:10, “Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in.” “Though my father and mother abandon me” seems to imply here that their only function was the beginning of life; and “the Lord will take me in” implies that afterward one grows up and understands about God’s plan. Now Shabbat is the culmination of the work of creation. And if we were supposed to preoccupy ourselves only with the beginning, we would logically sanctify Sunday, since it is the first day of creation. But if this is so, it seems that commandments about Shabbat and honoring parents contradict one another. The explanation is that with the honoring of parents, we are commanded regarding revering the importance of origins, while with the keeping of Shabbat, we are commanded regarding the goal of creation. And for this reason we are commanded to both honor parents and keep Shabbat. -- Chatam Sofer

You must honor your parents not only while you still look to them for your food, clothing and support but even when you are a “man” and no longer dependent upon them. -- Ketav Sofer

When looking at [this verse] … Rashi also questions the use of the singular ish for man with the plural form of the verb “fear.” His answer to the problem reflects his own bias. He says “a man has it in his power to do, but a woman has the authority of others over her.” … When [Rashi] explains why the verse places the word mother before father, he claims that it is because a son naturally fears his father more than his mother. Having exempted women from this obligation, Rashi speaks only of what a son must do. Women, daughters, are not included in his interpretation. -- Rabbi Rachel Esserman, “Who Shall Be Holy,” from The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, ed.

Questions for Discussion:

Chatam Sofer says that the link between honoring parents and Shabbat is that both have to do with creation; in our parents' case, the creation of a person, and in the case of Shabbat, the creation of the world. Does the importance that Judaism places on being fruitful and multiplying indicate that creating a new human being is like imitating God? Is new human life the ultimate example of the merging of God's creation and humanity's creation?

Ketav Sofer notes that our responsibility to place our parents in a primary role of our lives does not end when we have become adults. Rather, we are to continue to show our gratitude to them for all they have done for us. Can we understand Shabbat in a similar way? Even though adults are able to understand the value of taking periodic breaks from the everyday, is honoring Shabbat a way of revering God even if we might not need Shabbat to remind us of God's presence?

Rabbi Esserman notes that Rashi's commentary does not consider a daughter's role in honoring her parents. While egalitarian communities certainly expect both sons and daughters to honor their parents, is it possible that a daughter can appreciate her parents in a way that is unique compared to how a son appreciates his parents? What do both genders offer when it comes to honoring their parents?

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016