Acharei Mot (After the death)

Leviticus 16:1 to 18:30

prayerIn the text of past weeks we have learned that a person had to be “ritually pure” to take part in the community’s ritual ceremonies and offerings. However, being human, mistakes were made and every person (even the priests) became ritually impure. This week’s parsha provides rituals for atonement and redemption allowing the entire community to retain their “ritual purity” and worship the Eternal.

This week’s text begins with a reminder of what happened to Aaron’s two sons in parsha Sh’mini which we read a few weeks ago. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal.” (Lev. 16:1) From this single line we are reminded that we must follow all the laws and commandments of God … or else bad things may happen. Following this text, God commands Moses to tell his brother Aaron, the high priest, the rituals for removing impurity from the community, the sanctuary, and himself.

Then, starting with Leviticus 17:1 we begin, what has come to be called, the Holiness Code which continues for the rest of Leviticus. This week the laws for two seemingly unrelated topics are presented …. The eating of meat and sexual practices.

As in the past, I have tried to see the connections that different parts of a parsha have with each other… and how they combine to form a single topic. This week the topics seem completely unrelated. However, after some research, I discovered a theme…. Since the start of Leviticus we have studied the relationship between mankind and God…. the concept of Korban (coming close to God). The offerings or sacrifices had the function of bringing the Israelites closer to God … . Next we saw that Kadosh (Holiness) was demanded from the people. This Holiness required a separation between that which was related to the Eternal and the secular. (Shabbat vs. other days… Kosher foods vs. unclean foods… And, in order to remain “ritually pure” a person must avoid contact with any ritually unclean conditions such as contact with the dead, certain skin diseases that resembled leprosy, and body fluids.)

All of the above helped define what is ritually pure or correct … and what is ritually impure. Now in the second part of this week’s parsha we begin a section of Torah commonly know as the Holiness Code – the mitzvot (laws) that must be followed in order to create a “holy” community….. More on the Holiness Code next week.

However, this presents a problem. In order to fulfill God’s commandments, the Israelites had to remain holy or ritually pure. If they didn’t follow every law and became ritually impure, there was a chance that God would become angry with them and leave their community. Now, being human, mistakes were made and the Israelites were not completely “ritually pure”…. Things were done that produced impurity. This impurity could have resulted from the actions taken by the community, the priests, or even actions that made the Tabernacle itself impure. This brings us to the subject covered in the first half this week’s reading….

This week we learn about the rituals that produce atonement and redemption from the acts that made the Israelites “ritually impure.” The text details the rituals the priest completes to produce forgiveness from the Eternal. These rituals include specific offerings by the priest and his practice of a day which includes self-denial…. This day is the basis of Yom Kippur.

All of the rituals completed by the priest acted to separate the sins and wrong doing from the community, priests, and Tabernacle. In the text we read that the sins are even sent off into the wilderness through a ritual involving a scapegoat.

After all the rituals are complete, the people are deemed “ritually pure” and can worship the Eternal. Later, the prophets insisted that ritual and sacrifice alone did not reconcile mankind and God. They said that in order for atonement and the relationship with God to be restored, the sinning persons had to have a change of heart and a change of ways. The rabbis called this T’shuvah or “return” … a repentance that involved both emotion and action. According to the Mishnah, if the offense was against a person, the sinner could not be forgiven by ritual or offerings alone … An attempt to rectify the wrong and seek the good will of the injured party was required.

I see this week’s parsha as a bridge between the description of the how the people become Holy…. and the Holiness Code, a listing of the laws and commandments of God for the Israelites to follow. This week’s parsha provides the key that allows for the “ritually” imperfect people to be part of the community and accepted by the Eternal. By following the rituals presented, the entire community was ready to worship God and practice the laws as presented in the Holiness code which follows.

Earl Sabes

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