Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Overview of Acharei-Mos
Contains two positive mitzvas and twenty-six prohibitions
Prohibition of entering Holy of Holies
The Yom Kippur Priestly Service
Observance of Yom Kippur shall be a permanent statute; it is a day characterized by self-denial and forgiveness
During the wilderness wandering, offering and slaughtering animals suitable for offerings is prohibited outside the Sanctuary
Consuming blood is prohibited
Blood from slaughtering wild animals or fowl (generally not suitable to be offered on the altar in the Temple) needs to be covered
Carcasses create tumah (ritual impurity)
Commandment to observe God’s ordinances (dictated by moral sense) and statutes (sometimes-incomprehensible precepts addressed to the Israelites)
Prohibition of adhering to the practices of the surrounding nations of Egypt and Canaan, including incestuous, forbidden marriages [to blood relatives or to relatives of blood relations] and child sacrifice to the pagan deity Molech
Illicit sexual relations listed, including homosexuality and bestiality
The Yom Kippur Service (according to Rashi, as presented in the Gutnick Edition of the Torah)
The High Priest is the only one to conduct the service. He alternates five times between wearing four white linen garments (for services connected with the Holy of Holies) and his regular golden garments (for the other services). With each change of clothing he washes his hands and feet before and after and immerses his whole body in a mikvah. He prepares himself seven days before by living apart in a special section of the Temple and by being taught and by reviewing the rules and regulations for Yom Kippur.
Daily Temple Activities (wearing gold garments)
• Tamid (morning communal offering)
• Burning of incense on inner altar
• Meal offerings and wine libations
High Priest’s sin-offering bull (wearing white garments, confessing his sins in seeking atonement for impurity of temple and offerings caused by the priests)
• A bull is brought from his own property
• Confession for himself and for priests
• Slaughtering the bull
• Sprinkling of the blood on kapores (lid on Holy Ark) in the Holy of Holies (once with his index finger towards the top and seven times towards the lower part)
• Sprinkling the blood from inside the holy area towards the Paroches that separates the holy from the Holy of Holies
• Later placing some of the blood (mixed together with the male goat’s blood) on the horns of the golden (inner) altar all around then sprinkling the blood on top of the altar with his finger seven times
• Disposing of the bull by bringing it outside the camp where its skin, flesh and waste matter is burned
People’s sin offering (to atone for impurity of the Temple and sacrifices caused by the nation; wearing white)
• Two communal goats are brought to the entrance of the Ohel Moed
• Two lots are prepared, placed and mixed up in a small box. On one is written “for God” and on the other is written “LaAzazayl”
• The two goats are placed side by side, and then the High priest puts both his hands in the receptacle. The lot in his right hand is placed on the goat to the right and the lot in his left hand is placed on the goat to the left.
• The goat “for God”, designated a sin-offering, is slaughtered and its blood sprinkled (like the bull’s) towards the top and then bottom ends of the kapores; towards the paroches; on the horns of the golden altar all around; sprinkling with his index finger seven times on the top of the golden altar
• Disposing of the goat by bringing it outside the camp where its skin, flesh and waste matter is burned
Scapegoat to atone for all other sins of the nation (white garments)
• Aharon leans both of his hands on the second goat and confesses all the iniquities (crookedness, willful departure from God’s law); transgressions (rebellion); and sins (unintentional deviation from the right path) of the nation
• A pre-designated priest leads the goat, laden with all the sins, to an uninhabited land in the desert where he pushes the goat backward over a cliff.
Incense in the Holy of Holies for the spiritual elevation of the people (wearing white)
• A full pan of burning coals is taken from the outer altar
• A double handful of extra finely round incense is brought
• Inside the Holy of Holies, the High Priest places the incense on the fire in the pan
• The resulting cloud of the incense covering the kapores creates a screen preventing the High Priest from gazing at or getting too close to the Holy Presence
Further Yom Kippur offerings (Gold garments, because these are not connected to the Holy of Holies)
• High Priest’s ram for a burnt offering
• Nation's ram for a burnt offering
• Festival offerings
• Burning remains of the sin offering
Removal of spoon and shovel from Holy of Holies (white garments) …
• …That were used to burn the incense
• Linen garments are stored away
Completion of festival and daily temple procedure (gold garments)
• Remainder of festival offerings brought
• Tamid (afternoon communal sacrifice)
• Burning incense on golden(inner) altar
• Lighting menorah
What is Azazayl?
Name of a known mountain
Strong, hard rocky cliff
The one to be sent away
Ancient technical term for removal of sin and guilt of the community
Scapegoat (goat driven or escaping into the wilderness)
Personification of demon in the wilderness regarded as a focus of impurity
A Divinely-created force, Satan, who serves as prosecutor in the court of God
Sending Away the Goat to Azazayl
Rambam views these ceremonies as symbolic in nature designed to foster the process of repentance. The nation symbolically was set free from the offenses contracted in its desert life within the domain of the pagan deity of the desert. It felt cleansed of its sins having removed them away as far as possible.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that sins leave stains on the character of those who commit them, and these need to be cleansed before one can undergo catharsis. The sacrificed goat represents kapparah, atonement. The goat sent away symbolizes teharah, cleansing of the moral stain. The two goats, identical in appearance yet opposite in fate represent the duality of forces within us. We have two inclinations, one good (yetser tov), one bad (yetser hara). We have two minds, one emotional, one rational. We do not deny our sins. We confess them then let go of them. Our sins, that might have led us into exile, are themselves exiled. We symbolically send our yetser hara into the wilderness where it belongs and where it will meet a violent death. Now we are ready to start anew.
Consuming Blood is Prohibited
“This is because the life-force of the flesh is in the blood…it is the blood that atones for life” [when placed on the altar in the Holy Temple as part of the sacrificial service].This prohibition, mentioned seven times in the Torah, is so severe that it is punishable by karet [divine cutting off of one’s life or the life of one’s children].The text indicates that the prohibition applies to animals and birds.[Note: It is for this reason that meat that is to be cooked and eaten needs to be salted first, to draw out the blood. The liver is so filled with blood that only broiling can remove the blood.] Blood of fish and locusts is permitted. Human blood is prohibited rabbinically.
Blood makes atonement for ritual uncleanliness because of “nephesh” or “soul substance” it contains. This “soul substance” was to be only used as a purifying agent for the soul of the person who sinned as part of the sacrificial service in the Holy Temple.
Rambam explains that some ancients consumed blood as part of an idolatrous pagan ritual. They believed that the blood was the food of demons and whoever ate blood could then cooperate with the demons. Also, blood is a purifying and sanctifying liquid when used in the Temple ritual.
Ramban sees this prohibition as a remnant of the ancient pre-flood era when man was prohibited from eating meat. After the flood the eating of meat was permitted but the ban on blood remained in place.
Rav Kook sees this (as well as the commandment to spill and cover the blood from the slaughter of wild beast and fowl) as a step toward the return of a more ideal vegetarianism state that existed before the flood.
Perhaps we are what we eat and consumption of blood could trigger a blood-lust in us that would desensitize us to the suffering of other humans whose blood is shed. The consumed blood would mix with our own blood and infect us with animalistic coarse and unrefined traits and tendencies. Or perhaps the Torah wants us to avoid any feeling of overwhelming power and control that might be triggered by the consumption of the life force of ferocious, aggressive animals and fowl.
“And Keep My Decrees and Laws, since it is Only by Keeping Them That a Person Can Truly Live. I Am God”.
This verse introduces the section of the Torah that deals with forbidden relations. After listing the specific sexual liaisons (mostly family members) that are banned, the Torah states “Do not give any of your children to be initiated to Molekh, so that you do not profane your God’s name, I am God”. [Molekh was an Ammonite deity whose worship entailed a child’s trial by fire or, according to others, human sacrifice.] It is only then that the Torah lists and bans homosexuality (described as being an abomination) and bestiality (characterized as a depravity).
The Torah states as a general warning not to learn or copy the abominations of all the Canaanite nations because their pagan customs and values are antithetical to Judaism.
Perhaps the interjection of a cult practice not of a sexual nature was necessary…
To pave the way for introducing banned sexual behavior whose roots are in idolatrous cult worship or…
Because the Torah needed to first introduce one type of non-sexual insidious behavior(idolatry)so that it could then present other forms of disruptive social behavior (homosexuality and bestiality) that are banned for a society in which childbearing and childrearing are of paramount importance.
Sandwiched between the prohibition to offer up one’s child to the Ammonite deity Molekh and the prohibition of performing a sexual act with an animal is a law regarding human sexuality: “And you shall not cohabit with a male as one cohabits with a woman; it is a toavah (abomination)”. Lesbianism is never mentioned in the Torah but is forbidden by the rabbis.]
Jewish law is concerned not with the source of a person’s erotic urges or with his/her feelings, but only with a person’s behavior. The Torah forbids the act of homosexual intercourse, known as mishkav zakhar, but does not consider being gay to be a sin. There is no source which says that we must shun those who are homosexual or isolate them from the society. If one does not act upon his feelings, no actual problem arises. [Note: The nineteenth Hungarian psychologist Karl Benkert is credited with coining the term “homosexuality”. Because he believed that it was inborn, he felt that laws against it were fundamental violations of human rights.]
Homosexuality in Judaism has been written about and debated by Torah scholars through the years. Following are some points of view:
Some note that the Torah is opposed to homosexual acts, not homosexual people. Judaism does not prohibit or in any way look down upon homosexual orientation or love but does condemn the homosexual behavior
Rambam asserts that lesbian practices (of which there is very little discussion) are forbidden because it was a "practice of Egypt" and because it constituted rebelliousness.
Although the Torah offers no rationale for the prohibition, the Sages of the Talmud reasoned that it undermines the structure of the family when a man abandons his wife to pursue a relationship with another man
Rav Kook ruled that a shochet who was rumored to have committed a homosexual act could be retained because, even if the rumor were true, the man might have since repented. It is noteworthy that Rabbi Kook considered homosexuality an act of volition for which one can repent
The Lubavitcher Rebbe accepted the fact that certain men and women have an inherent sexual attraction to the same sex. However, these men are not "gay" and the women are not "lesbian." Rather, these are people with a sexual preference for the same sex. In addition, the Rebbe believed this preference is a result of social conditioning, and not an irreversible physical condition.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein argued that homosexuality must be treated by those who oppose it and those who do not, as one of the many concerns facing the Jewish community, and not let it dwarf all other issues. He noted that the Hebrew word toavah is not uniquely applied to the homosexual. It is also used to describe one who does not support the poor and one who is deceitful in trade. It is also used to describe forbidden animals. “We wish mechallelei Shabbat would be shomrei Shabbat [Sabbath observers], but if that’s what they are, that’s what they are, we accept them as they are and we don’t pass judgment.” All the revulsion and moral energy that is brought against homosexuality should be equally directed against other anti-Torah behaviors, too.
Rabbi Shmuel Boteach’s opinion is that homosexuality cannot be a deviance, since sexual deviance is an oxymoron. Sex is instinctive, and an instinct cannot be deviant. The Torah expressed a preference for heterosexuality and mandated that only this type of sexual activity is permitted for human beings.
Homosexuality is a religious (between man and God) and not a moral issue. A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party. But who is being harmed when two, unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship? Since the Torah has defined Western morality (and has preserved it for thousands of years), its viewpoint needs to be taken seriously. Rikki Zibitt points out that, historically, societies with elevated levels of homosexual activity experienced dwindling population until they eventually disappeared.
We are judged by actions and not by orientation. Only actions are prohibited, not proclivities. Controlling behavior, though difficult, is what the Torah asks. Judaism looks negatively at homosexual intercourse (possibly only involving penetration), but not at homosexual love. Rabbi Boteach salutes the modern State of Israel for affording dignity, rights and protection for its LGBT citizens.
Writer and philosopher Dennis Prager notes that Judaism’s opposition to homosexual behavior is based on the religion’s fundamental concept that supports whatever enhances life, and opposes or separates whatever represents death. “This is probably why the Torah juxtaposes child sacrifice with male homosexuality. Though they are not morally analogous, both represent death: one deprives children of life, the other prevents their having life. This parallelism is present in the Talmud: ‘He who does not engage in propagation of the race is as though he had shed blood.’” Judaism is worried about what happens to men and to society when men do not channel their passions into marriage.
Judaism has a sexual ideal — marital sex. Not marrying is a less holy, less complete, and a less Jewish life. Homosexuality contradicts the Jewish ideal; it cannot be held to be equally valid; and those publicly committed to it may not serve as public Jewish role models. If all non-marital forms of sexual behavior are permitted, other forms of sexual expression--even those repugnant like bestiality--become acceptable.
Up until recently it was assumed even in medical circles that being homosexual was a conscious choice. Current psychiatric thinking is that the individual who is homosexual has no choice because his condition derives from biological (hormonal) and/or genetic issues. Even some heterosexual men have had either latent or overt homosexual desires at some point in their lives. A recent article in Scientific American cites a study documenting the biological attraction of males to other males exists across diverse cultures, suggesting a common biological foundation. Rabbi Norman Lamm, among others, reasons that while homosexual acts always remain prohibited, the participants are not legally culpable for actions that stem from involuntary inclinations (onayss).
A large study conducted in 2014 found links between specific areas of the human genome [complete set of genetic information] and sexual orientation—but did not uncover a “gay gene” that reliably makes someone homosexual. Additionally, there exists documentation that homosexuals can change their sexual orientation.
Overview of Kedoshim
Ten Commandments embodied in the opening verses
Contains thirteen positive mitzvahs and thirty-eight prohibitions
Laws that facilitate achieving kidusha (holiness; separateness) including…
o Ritual laws
o Be in awe of parents
o Avoid worshiping and making idols
o Consideration for the poor: leaving the ends of one’s field and vineyard for them… leaving gleanings for them… not to gather stalks of grain and grapes that fell during the harvest
o Dealing with fellowmen: not to steal… not to withhold another’s property… not to delay payment of a hired worker… not to give misleading advice… not to gossip
o Prohibitions of bearing a grudge… of taking revenge…of embarrassing another
o “Love thy neighbor” because he is just like you
o Agricultural issues:
Not to mate animals of diverse species…
Not to sow various kinds of seed together
[Note: The reason for these laws has not been revealed to us. Rabbi J.H. Hertz cites Josephus who thought that mixed breeding was prohibited “for fear that such an unnatural union in the animal world might lead to moral perversion among human beings”]
o Not to eat the first year’s produce of a tree…fruits of the fourth year to be eaten in Yerushalayim
o Prohibition of Canaanite customs: blood drinking; divination; soothsaying
o Heathen mourning customs connected with worship of the dead are prohibited:
Cutting corners of head and beard
Gashing and mutilating one’s body in expression of excessive grief
o Respect for elders
o Treating converts with kindness
o Honesty in business… maintaining accurate scales, weights and measures
o Cursing of parents is punishable by death
o Prohibition of following Canaanite customs
• Molech worship
• Forbidden sexual relationships
• Necromancy (communicating with spirits of dead to predict the future/ witchcraft)
Sefer Vayikrah Part II
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag notes that the first seventeen chapters of Sefer Vayikrah present a flow of themes relating to the Mishkan. Included are descriptions of the…
Korbanot (offerings) brought by the individual, both obligatory and voluntary, to draw closer to God
Rules and procedures to be followed by kohanim (priests) when bringing the korbanot
Mishkan dedication ceremony
States of tumah that preclude entry into the mishkan
Avoda (service) to be performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur
Prohibitions of eating korbanot outside the Mishkan
Parshat Kedoshim presents rules for conducting our lives—a topic that continues through the remainder of the Book. The phrases “Ani Hashem” (I am God) --usually referring to commandments dealing with interpersonal relationships-- and “Ani Hashem Elokeichem” (I am the Lord your God) --usually dealing with issues between Man and God--appear 53 times in the second half, after having appeared only once in the first half.
Perhaps, suggests Rabbi Leibtag, the message here is that God’s presence is not limited to the Mishkan. Rather, the relationship we experience there is meant to be carried with us in our behavior in the “real world” outside the Mishkan. Fulfilling both positive and negative commandments reminds us that God is Omnipresent and is inexorably bound up in our everyday life. This awareness helps us sustain the felt-but-often-soon-forgotten closeness to Him experienced in the Mishkan.
On Being Kadosh (holy)
“Dabair el call adas b’nai yisrael v'amarta aleyhem kedoshim teheyu…” (“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them ‘you shall be holy’ for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”) Moshe spoke directly to all the people this time (instead of first teaching Aharon and the Elders) because so many Torah laws are included and possibly because he wanted to make the point that the core ideals of kindness, integrity, honesty were attainable by all, not just a select few. [Note: the root of adas is ayd, which means witness. By hearing these laws, Israel is witnessing the covenant that God made between Himself and the nation.]
The Lubavitcher Rebbe thinks that Moshe is stressing the positive aspects of being Jewish: “You should be holy because I, God your God, am holy”. Immediately identifying the people as holy-- even before describing the commandments and warning of the consequences of their non-observance-- is a lesson for us all to approach one another with warmth, with friendliness and with positivity.
Holiness Means “Separation” or “Setting aside” …
In behavior, or in place (Holy Temple) or in time (Shabbat; Holy days)
Thinking for oneself (e.g., not following a mob or crowd)
A prostitute is called a kedaysha because she separates herself for pagan worship and for her distinctive “profession”.
Being holy does not mean removing oneself from the surrounding Society. On the contrary, the Torah is filled with practical prohibitions, regulations and laws--both humanitarian and ritualistic--that affect all aspects of our life and which, when observed, make us unique. Avoidance of certain types of behavior—and the self-control it demands—defines our persona and prevents us from becoming naval b’rshus hatorah (offensive when observing the Torah laws).
Martin Buber understands kedusha as separating but not withdrawing just like God Who transcends and is separate from the world but has not withdrawn from it. We are commanded to imitate Him (Imitatio Dei) and “radiate a positive influence on them (the world of the nations) through every aspect of our Jewish living.” It is our unique life style of self-control and ethical behavior that defines us, separates us and makes us different (i.e., holy).
Rabbi Harold Kanatopsky, author of Holiness a Negative Concept, offers the intriguing notion that the restraint and self- control inherent in negative behavior commandments (Lo sa’ase) is the thing that makes an individual kodesh, presumably because successfully battling the urge to succumb to the prohibited builds character and is what sets us apart.
On Shabbos and Parents
The first example cited for becoming kadosh is “ish emo v’aviv terau v’es shabsosi tishmoru ani hashem elokaychem” which I think is best translated as “you shall each be in awe of (rather than “in fear of”) his mother and father and keep My Sabbaths; I the Lord am your God.” The word terau may also be related to the word meaning “to see”. The Torah is directing us to use our “inner eye” (our understanding) to perceive, and understand the importance of revering parents.
Why the juxtaposition with Shabbos?
Rashi thinks this to teach us that in the event parents instruct the child to violate the Sabbath, the child must disregard that request.
Jack Sherman’s view is that one cannot achieve a meaningful observance of Shabbos unless one has first resolved any emotional conflicts with one’s parents.
Yehudah Valladares thinks the message is that both commandments are equally important.
Others suggest that the Torah is emphasizing the three-way partnership in one’s life --father, mother and God (as embodied in the concept of Shabbos).
On the meaning of Lo s’kallel
“Lo s’kallel chayraysh” (“you shall not curse the deaf…”).
“Ki ish ish asher y’kallel es aviv v’es emo mos yumas…” (“If any man curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death”).
The Hebrew root word kallel also means “light”. Thus translated, we are being warned not to treat a physically-challenged person lightly or with contempt or taking him for granted. Do not insult him or take advantage of him, even if you are able to do it with impunity. Don’t think he will not be sensitive or that he does not welcome the opportunity to respond because he doesn’t hear. Such behavior hurts us and sullies our reputation. Even the non-handicapped person who refuses to listen or accept your opinion (“deaf” to what you say) should not be brushed off and treated badly.
The Torah also is warning us to not treat parents lightly or to think of them as ignorant. [Mark Twain’s observation is particularly apropos: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years.”]
If we do denigrate our parents, we invariably face the “death” of some part of our emotional development which will, in turn, hurt our relationships with Man and with God.
“V’Leefnay eevayr lo cetain michshoal” (“And do not place a stumbling block before the blind”)
This prohibition has wide ranging meanings beyond the literal stumbling block. We are forbidden to cause another person to sin.
Examples of such behavior abound:
• Serving or making wine available to an abstaining Nazir
• Hitting one’s adult son-- which will provoke the son to respond in kind
• Lending money with interest, causing the borrower to sin
• Selling weapons to one likely to engage in criminal activity
• Lending money without witnesses which can cause disagreement about terms and payment
• Giving bad advice to someone seeking our counsel
“V’ahavta le’rayacha camocha”
According to Rabbi Akiva, to “love thy neighbor (fellow human being) as thyself” is the fundamental principle of the Torah.
But suppose you don’t like yourself? Also, how can the Torah dictate/command that we feel something, when we have no control over emotions of love and hate!
Nechama Leibowitz cites several approaches to deal with these difficulties:
• Rashbam thinks that the law is applicable only to men who are good but not to those who are wicked.
• Ramban opines that the text is not to be taken literally since it is impossible for a person to love another as he loves himself. Instead, the meaning is to wish for our neighbors the same wellbeing in all things that we wish for ourselves. His approach is supported by the text wording of “V’ahavta LE’rayacha” (have love for thy neighbor) and not “ES rayacha” (love thy neighbor). The Torah wants us to free ourselves from jealousy and to be happy for another’s good fortune
• Hillel, at the beginning of the Christian era, provides a negative formulation of this Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow person”. He focuses on behavior. No matter what you feel, do not do anything to anyone that you would not like having done to you. Respect every person’s feelings and interests.
• Biur’s translation is insightful: “Love thy neighbor (fellow human) who is as thyself.” You can be motivated to treat another in a positive way when you realize that he is just like you. We all have conflicts, emotions, worries, and may need assistance. Be understanding and empathic to another’s situation…I think the trup supports Biur’s view in that “love thy neighbor” is a free-standing phrase that is followed by “he is just like you”. The unwritten but understood link between the two is the word “because”.
Rabbi Marc Angel notes that this commandment does not mean that we should allow someone to commit injustices. Another commandment in the parsha calls on us to chastise someone who is behaving wrongly. Rabbi Angel points out that the mitzvah implies that we need to love ourselves. “This means that we need to live upright and honorable lives; when we look in the mirror we should see someone whom we respect. This is also an essential ingredient in the ‘golden rule’”.
Dr. Alvin Schiff quotes Rav Soloveitchik who points out that the use of the prefix “le” [rayacha] instead of employing the preposition “es” underscores the future orientation of this mitzvah.