May 5th: Acharay Mot/Kedoshim
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
This is one of those weeks when the double portion is a real blessing. Rather than deal with the very challenging Acharay Mot (Leviticus 16-18), we can choose Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) with its wonderful array of inspirational passages.
“You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” (19.12)
”When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field….you shall leave produce for the poor and the stranger.” (19.9-10)
“You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” (19.14)
“You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your neighbors fairly.” (19.15)
And, of course, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (19.18)
If it is a year when Acharay Mot is not combined with Kedoshim, then we are left with a less exalting portion, one that presents three themes. The first is the ancient scape-goat ritual for Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16). This is where the High Priest goes through a series of purification rituals—one for himself, one for his family, and one for the whole congregation of the Israelites. Then, he takes two goats and casts lots to see which one will be sacrificed and which one will be set free into the wilderness (for Azazel!). The slain goat’s blood helps atone for the people’s sins, and the priest “puts” the sins of the people on the head of the other goat that is then set free. It is an interesting ancient ritual, one which many synagogues read on Yom Kippur morning.
The second is concerned with the elimination of sacrifices to gods other than the Lord and with the proper preparation of meat. The main issue in slaughtering animals is that the blood not be eaten. As the Torah tells us in Leviticus 17.11-12, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the sacrificial altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation. Therefore I say to the Israelite people: No person among you shall partake of blood, nor shall the stranger who resides among you partake of blood."
It is interesting that, from a developmental view of Jewish history, we have the beginnings of the kosher slaughter rules. Note that the passage does not speak of a super-sharp knife or cutting the trachea, esophagus, carotid arteries, jugular veins, and vagus nerves in one swift action—as later Halachah prescribes. According to Leviticus, animals may be hunted, but, when it comes to slaughtering the immobilized animal, the blood must be drained. As the rules developed over time, hunting was eliminated from the possibilities: animals must be healthy (non-injured) and able to get up on their own before the slaughter. As with pretty much everything else in our religion (and in other religions, too!), experience brought adaptation and development in a kind of progressive revelation.
The third theme is much more challenging—especially if you’re a thirteen year old trying to base a speech on it. Chapter 18 deals with the laws of consanguinity—whom Israelites are forbidden to marry. For instance:
“None of you shall approach to any who is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness; I am the Lord. The nakedness of your father, or the nakedness of your mother, shall you not uncover; she is your mother; you shall not uncover her nakedness. The nakedness of your father’s wife shall you not uncover; it is your father’s nakedness. The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or daughter of your mother, whether she was born at home, or born abroad, their nakedness you shall not uncover. The nakedness of your son’s daughter, or of your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for theirs is your own nakedness. The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, fathered by your father; she is your sister, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s near kinswoman. You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister; for she is your mother’s near kinswoman…” (Leviticus 18.6-13)
Though perhaps a little graphic for a religious text, these passages show the Torah’s insistence on basic decency in human behavior—for living every aspect of our lives with respect for ourselves and with respect for the people in our families and communities. God is the Creator of life in all of its intricacies, and God has expectations that we are holy in all of our ways.
There is also the ancient contextual situation: these prohibited behaviors were practiced by other peoples. As the Torah explains, “Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, nor of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws.” (Leviticus 18.2-3)
And, “Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you…so that the land not vomit you out…” (Leviticus 18.24-28)
While God has unconditional love for us, the blessings which we so enjoy are not without condition. There are consequences to our actions, and God wants us to remember that vulgarity and disrespect create a society that is less than desirable for everyone.
In other words, though in much more graphic and disturbing ways, Leviticus 18 has a strikingly similar message to Leviticus 19. God wants us to behave in godly ways, loving our neighbors as ourselves and treating everyone with respect, decency, and awareness of God’s presence within each and every person.