Parshat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim
Parshat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim by Rabbi Reuven Tradburks
1st aliya (Vayikra 16:1-24) Aharon is instructed to enter the Holy of Holies only through an elaborate process of offerings. He is to bring a private sin offering. And a communal sin offering of 2 identical goats, one as an offering, one sent to the wilderness, determined by lottery. The blood of both his offering and the communal shall be brought into the Holy of Holies, accompanied by incense. The smoke of the incense fills the Holy of Holies. The (scape) goat is sent to the wilderness. The people gain kapara, atonement.
Entry to the Holy of Holies requires an elaborate ceremony of unique offerings; including the scapegoat ceremony and the incense offered in the Holy of Holies. And it is all performed by the Cohen Gadol.
This continues the powerful and crucial theme of the entire section following Mount Sinai. In G-d’s reach for man, his love of man, He has created a place of rendezvous; the Mishkan. However, it is rendezvous with care, with reservation, with humility. The building design is with great detail. The offerings are with great detail; when they are brought, how they are brought, the Cohanim’s role in bringing them. G-d says: You may approach Me, I want you to approach Me, but with care. Here, He invites man to rendezvous in the Holy of Holies – the inner, intimate chamber, with the Aron and the tablets, covered by angels. This intimate invitation requires a very elaborate procedure; unique offerings like the scapegoat and the incense, sin offerings, olah offerings. The closer, the more intimate; but also the more care and preparation required.
This is a powerful and crucial theme: G-d invites man, wants man, but demands man’s understanding of his inadequacy and his human foibles (sin offerings). And while man is invited to the Holy of Holies it is with great limitation. Not every person, not every day; it is one person, the Cohen Gadol, only one time a year. G-d remains mysterious, ineffable, infinite, unknowable. This is the delicate balance the Torah is creating; G-d wants man. Man is noble, the invitee of G-d Himself. But with enormous deference, enormous humility of man’s limited station. Nobility and humility; the majesty in being the invitee of G-d, hand in hand with the reality of our woeful inadequacy.
2nd aliya (16:25-17:7) This entire ceremony is done once a year on Yom Kippur, to gain atonement and purity. Tell the entire people: all sacrifices are to be brought to the Mikdash. The Cohen is to offer them, so they are pleasing. We are to no longer offer sacrifices to spirits.
Only at the end of the entire description of how one is to enter the Holy of Holies does the Torah tell us that this is to be done on Yom Kippur. As if to say: the goal of Yom Kippur is to enter the Holy of Holies. It is through man’s approach to G-d that he gains atonement and purity.
3rd aliya (17:8-8:21) Blood is not to be consumed, for the life is in the blood. I have given it to you to use for atonement on the altar, not to consume. The blood of an undomesticated animal or bird that is killed for consumption, that blood is to be covered with earth. Do not do what the Egyptians or Canaanites do. Do My commands, and live. Sexual relations with relatives are forbidden: including spouses of parents, half-siblings, grandchildren, step-siblings, aunts, in-laws. In addition, marrying 2 women who are related. Or a married woman.
The listing of forbidden relationships changes the subject from the laws concerning the Mishkan. It is not the first such change of subject. The laws of Kashrut of Parshat Shemini were also a change of subject. Thus, the first 2 subjects of laws unrelated to our approach to G-d in the Mishkan are food and family. These are the first things said to the first man and woman on the 6th day of creation: be fruitful and multiply. And eat of the herbs. Family and food were said to Adam and Eve. Family and food are the first laws to be outlined in detail to the Jewish people.
4th aliya (8:22-19:14) A man shall not lie with a man. Sexual relations with an animal are forbidden. These things (all the above) defile the land: it will spit you out. (Parshat Kedoshim) Be Holy, as I, G-d, your G-d is holy. Revere parents, keep Shabbat. Do not turn to idols or make graven gods. A shlamim offering may only be eaten for 2 days. Help the poor and stranger when harvesting a field by leaving dropped or forgotten produce or grapes. Don’t steal, lie or swear falsely. Don’t cheat, or tarry paying wages till the morning. Don’t curse the deaf, trip up the blind.
This aliya begins Parshat Kedoshim, the best parsha in the Torah. Or at least Rashi says so on the first verse: most topics of the Torah are contained here. There are 51 mitzvot in 64 verses. We have left the topic of the holiness of the Mikdash and focus on holiness in our behavior. These are the greatest themes of ethical behavior; helping the poor with dignity, honesty, care for employees, care for the deaf and blind. In just these few verses, our every moment of human interaction becomes meaningful; when do we not need to be vigilant that what we say is true. And kind. And gives dignity to others. Holiness inheres not just in the Mikdash but in the everyday treatment of others.
5th aliya (19:15-32) Do not pervert justice by favoring either poor or powerful. Don’t spread gossip, nor stand by your brother’s blood. Don’t hate. Don’t take revenge; love your neighbor as yourself. Do not interbreed animals, seeds, or wear wool and linen. In the land, fruit is forbidden for the first 3 years of growth, 4th year holy, 5th year permissible. Do not use divination. Nor round the corners of your face or use a straight razor on your beard. Nor tattoo. Nor seek sorcery. Rise before the aged, glorify the wizened.
The mention of justice is a foil: in court, we pursue justice. But not on the streets. It is not our place to be judges, so pick favorites, help the victim. And revenge; we are not judges to mete out just revenge. If he didn’t lend you, you still should do the right thing and lend to him.
And 2 of the best verses of the Torah: love your neighbor as yourself. And rise for the aged. As Rabbi Sacks says: it is easy to love mankind, quite a bit harder to love the person next door. We see the warts, as they see ours. But rise above it. All people have goodness. Rise for the aged; perhaps for the wisdom that life itself brings. Quite a contrast to the glorification of the youth of our times.
6th aliya (19:33-20:7) Love the convert. Employ accurate weights and measures. One who gives their child to Molech shall be put to death. And if you don’t do it, I will. The one who turns and follows sorcery, I will deal with them. Be holy; for I am Holy.
The convert may feel out of place, different, self-conscious, without family, not part of the crowd. Be extra sensitive to those feeling left out.
Accurate weights and measures seem obvious. But the Torah is emphasizing that even when you can get away with it, don’t. Like cursing the deaf. Who will ever know?
7th aliya (20:8-27) The following receive the death penalty: cursing parents, the long list of forbidden sexual relationships listed above. Observing these laws and not those of the nations will prevent the Land from spitting you out, as it has done to those nations. Since I have distinguished you, it is you who shall possess the Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. And you shall distinguish between animals to be eaten and those not. Be holy to Me and I will distinguish you to be My people.
The Jewish idea of ethical monotheism is on full display in Kedoshim. Holiness wanders seamlessly in the parsha from taking care of the poor, to laws of sacrifices, to honesty, to sexual prohibitions, to loving your neighbor, not hating; all under the rubric of holiness. We are to be holy so that the land not spit us out. Certainly, something to give pause, to those of us walking the streets of our land. We need to be extra vigilant in all these holy things, ritual, interpersonal, speech, care, love; for our success in this land rests upon it.
Rabbi Reuven Tradburks is the director of Machon Milton, our English Language Conversion Course in Jerusalem.