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Parshat Acharei Mot

Posted by rabbiart on April 21, 2008

Torah Reading: Vayikra 16:1 to 18:30 Haftorah Reading: Malachi 3:4 to 3:24

With this week’s parshah it is as if we have returned from “commercials” to our regularly scheduled program.
Our reading picks up after the death of Aaron’s two sons. We get two chapters of sacrificial procedures, and then the beginning of the “Holiness Code” in Chapters 17 and 18. This section of the Torah is generally considered to run from Chapter 17 through Chapter 26. In it we see the word Kadosh over and over. Chapter 17 concludes with a warning against the consuming of blood, because blood, the Torah says, is equivalent to the life of all flesh (nefesh
kol basar).

In chapter 18 we are given an extended list of forbidden sexual relations. In the lists of 613 commandments, we find almost each verse of this chapter to be a separate commandment. We might wonder why it is necessary to go into such exquisite detail in presenting the Israelites with all the possible permutations and ways in which forbidden sexual activity may occur. We may take refuge in thinking that (allegedly) more “primitive” societies had looser sexual mores, but a quick review of “sex in the news” should quickly disabuse us of that notion! Politicians and polygamists seem very much in the headlines. Yet, one wonders, couldn’t the Torah have simply said something along the lines of “No sex outside of a sanctified relationship”?

In most of our families we probably do not even have all the relatives that are listed in this parshah. Not to mention beasts or sacrifices to the god Moloch. So, in a sense, we get a free head start on our observance of the mitzvot that have been handed down to us, because it is not even possible for us
to commit these violations.

Chapter 18 begins and ends by implicating the surrounding countries and populations in the listed sexual practices. Perhaps in the opening and closing verses we can get a sense of why these admonitions are so critical. Verse three warns us against imitating the practices of Egypt, from where we escaped, and of Canaan, where we are going, but to keep HaShem’s laws and judgments, and thereby to choose life. The closing verses warn us that violating these laws will cause us to be “vomited out” by the very land on which we live, and to be cut off from our people. This judgment may seem either harsh or unrealistic, but again, we need only to turn our attention to recent headlines to see that this is exactly what happens to people who run afoul of these warnings.

Perhaps the message of this chapter is to be wary of living a life so bereft of higher purpose that one seeks fulfillment and meaning in the practices described here. If we are able to orient our lives, and the lives of our community around the more “spiritually uplifting” and purposeful parts of the Torah, then we will not be subject to the temptations of which we are warned in this parshah.

Shabbat Shalom

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