Parashat Aharei Mot
May 6-7, 2016 – 29 Nisan 5776
Annual (Leviticus 16:1-18:30): Etz Hayim p. 679; Hertz p. 480
Triennial (Leviticus 17:1-18:30): Etz Hayim p. 685; Hertz p. 485
Haftarah (1 Samuel 20:18-42): Etz Hayim p. 1216; Hertz p. 948
When Ritual Encountered Morality
Yardén Raber, CY Talmud Faculty
Leviticus is probably the most difficult book of the Torah for the modern reader. It contains a whole system of ritual codes, based on certain unstated assumptions that stand at odds with our modern view of the world. First and foremost, it was axiomatic to Leviticus’ world that impurity is a real entity which is capable of affecting the material world. In the same way, it was believed – even taken for granted – that certain rituals are required to remove the impurity affecting individuals and inanimate objects, and that if done correctly, they will purify them. However, as strange as this may seem, our parashah provides a key that enables the modern reader to enter the Levitical realm of purity and impurity in a meaningful way.
The late Professor Jacob Milgrom, one of the most prominent Bible scholars of the last century, claimed that it is precisely here, in Aharei Mot, where the whole verbal and ideological scenery of Leviticus changes. Two critical changes occur: the concept of impurity expands to include moral sins and blemishes, and, consequently, the process of correction is broadened accordingly. These alterations challenge the previous assumptions on purity and impurity in the book of Leviticus. In Aharei Mot we enter the domain of what Milgrom calls “the holiness chapters.” Impurity is no longer caused only or even primarily by physical phenomena over which the individual has no control; immoral behavior becomes the main source of impurity.
Two examples of this radical change in the Levitical conception of impurity can be seen in our parashah. In chapter 16 Aharon is told to cleanse the impurity of the people of Israel from the midst of the Sanctuary (v. 16). However, this is not the traditional impurity depicted by Leviticus up to now, such as that based on contact with a dead body, leprosy or a bodily emission. Aharon is speaking specifically about transgressions committed intentionally by the people (pish’eihem) and all their other sins (mikol hatotam). In the same vein, chapter 18 enumerates a list of persons with whom one is forbidden to have sexual relations. According to verses 24-25 whoever engages in such forbidden sexual encounters, presumably wittingly, brings impurity (tuma’ah) upon him/herself and indeed upon the land.
Our parashah brings forth a concomitant and revolutionary message that challenges the somewhat ritualistic approach that has characterized the book of Leviticus so far. The traditional status of the kohen is, impliedly, challenged; he no longer has a monopoly over the process of purification. It is not only what priests do that may affect the land and the Sanctuary. Instead, from now on, people’s behavior is a key factor in shaping the Holy. Our parashah empowers the individual to live a holy life without being subject to any intermediaries; it is a call for an egalitarian, and maybe even utopian, society where individuals become aware of the consequences of their own behavior and the impact of their actions on their surroundings.
A Vort for Parashat Aharei Mot
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty
Following the death of Aaron’s two sons, God tells Moses בְּזֹאת – “B’zot, Thus Aharon shall enter the Holy Shrine…”(Lev 16:3). R‘ Menahem Mendel Hager, the founder of the Vizhnitz Hasidim (1830-84, Ukraine) wrote in Tzemach Tsaddik that the gematria of zot – this = 408, the sum of the gematrias of tsom (fast), kol (voice) and mamon (money), 136 each. These are the means by which one repents, prays and gives charity, recalling the words of Unetaneh Tokef on the High Holidays – tshuva, tefilla v’tsdaka mitigate the severity of the divine punishment. Even the High Priest, the most elevated of Israel, must do these to be fit to enter the Shrine, to reach new levels of Holiness.
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty
During Pesach (Passover) we took a break from the regular Torah readings, now we are back to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). Remember the death of Aaron’s 2 sons in the middle of the preparations and festivities of the inauguration of the Tabernacle? We are picking up from that point.
1) The consequence of the death of Aaron’s sons is a strict warning to Aaron not to come inside to the sanctified area at random times (Lev. 16:1-2). Does this restriction shed any light on what might have been the cause of the death of Aaron’s 2 sons?
2) Chapter 16 (the Torah reading for Yom Kippur) tells us about the ceremony that was done in the Tabernacle (and later in the Temple) for the Day of Atonement. Let us look at description of the clothing that the Kohen Gadol (high priest) wears for this occasion, found in 16:4. What is he wearing? Why do you think that he is not wearing his golden clothing with precious stones that were made for him to wear when serving in the Tabernacle/Temple?
3) While the atonement ceremony is carried out by a few people, there are related Mitzvot (commandments) that all the people have to do. What are they (16:29-34)? How close is that to Yom Kippur of Today?
4) Chapter 17 deals with several aspects of slaughter and sacrifice outside the Tabernacle. Most of it does not match our practices today, but it is worth considering the messages that emerge from this chapter. 17:1-6 warns against slaughtering without bringing the animal to the Tabernacle as a sacrifice. What would be given to God (v.6)? May we eat those parts if they are not given to God? How is the slaughtering without an offering to God thought of in v. 4? What do you think is the message of the Torah here?
5) The people of Israel are warned not to do as the deeds of the [people of the] lands of Egypt and Canaan (18:1-5). Why might we be tempted to do so? What is the risk of learning from the ways of the other people around us?