"Parsha to the Point" – Acharei Mot 5776

Parshat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1–18:30

Rabbi David Stav 

The first component of Parshat Acharei Mot deals with the Yom Kippur service conducted by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), while the second component delves into a detailed discussion on the prohibition of illicit relationships. At the conclusion of this section, the Torah adds a word of advice, and a warning:

“Do not become impure through any of these; for through all of these the nations that I expel before you became impure, The Land became impure and I recalled its iniquity upon it, and the Land vomited out its inhabitants… For the inhabitants of the Land who are before you committed all these abominations, and the Land became impure. Let not the Land vomit you out for having made it impure, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” (Vayikra / Leviticus 18:24-27).

The text associates illicit relationships with a possible expulsion from the Land of Israel. The language it uses is harsh – the Land “vomits”. This is no mere expulsion, but rather a physical discharge. How are these two issues connected? Why should a healthy and stable family be the basis for our steadfastness in the Land of Israel, while an erosion of the family unit, according to the Torah, leads to being torn away from the land?

The Torah seems to want to whistle a new tune to a society seeking to build its national home. The underpinnings of the nation will not be built on hatred for outsiders (even if they are hostile), or the colors of the pendants we wave (although such symbols do raise morale and create a feeling of togetherness). A healthy nation is founded upon small, solidary social units, headed by small and stable family units. A country cannot be disconnected from the reality experienced by the individual units that comprise it.

Even as early as when our ancestors left Egypt, we are told that the celebration of independence from Egypt would not take place on a stage with singers and choirs. Instead, the events of the Exodus would be related through intimate ceremonies held in our homes, where parents can have conversations with their children and tell them what transpired in Egypt, and what is occurring to us today. 

By applying this idea to our current reality and on how we celebrate the independence of our nation in the modern day, we can receive guidance on how to tell our children what existed here before Herzl and before the establishment of the State of Israel, who the “illegal” Jewish immigrants and underground military organizations were, and why this country is essential for our people. 

The Torah tells us that we are to take “one lamb for each household” (Shemot / Exodus 12:3). The pascal lamb “barbeque” was a family affair, because the redemption of the nation begins with the family. This motif persists in the verses of this week’s portion. By cautioning us to maintain a proper family structure, the Torah seeks to illustrate that national solidarity hinges on the solidarity within nuclear families.

The Torah’s verses resonate like a warning beacon. We dare not take our presence in the Land of Israel for granted, as if this cannot be undone. We celebrate our country’s tremendous achievements, and rightly so. The establishment of the State of Israel was a very important step, the culmination of decades of activity: conquering the wilderness, drying the swamps, inhabiting deserted regions in which no humans had lived for hundreds of years, and fulfilling the miracle of the ingathering the exiles from the four corners of the Earth, after a painful diaspora that lasted two millennia.

Less than seventy years after the devastating blow dealt to our people, we can give ourselves a pat on the back for having created an exemplary economy and a strong army. These two elements are vital in ensuring our physical existence here as a state. They are indeed prerequisites, but we need other things, as well. Everyone understands that an army needs the right equipment to succeed in its missions.

However, an army devoid of a fighting spirit, motivation and an understanding of what it is fighting for, and why it is fighting, will not win any wars. A soldier that does not understand why it is important to be a part of the Jewish People and the State of Israel will wonder whether it isn’t more worthwhile to build a future elsewhere, or to simply evade military service, or any other form of meaningful service to the community. If we cannot establish a model for a strong society with strong values, we will have a difficult time maintaining this country in the long term.

If any member of a society can lay on the ground, bleeding to death, without anyone coming to his or her aid, that society will also find it challenging to create any solidarity when missiles land in Sderot or Netivot. If violence becomes rampant within society, and if violent incidents can erupt over trifling matters such as a parking spot or a soccer match, society will struggle to come together in trying times.

We can interpret the verses of this parsha as a religious warning on reward and punishment, but this interpretation, in my humble opinion, may cause the reader to miss the point. This is not about punishment; it is about acquiring a deep understanding of the human soul.

For a society to withstand the test of time here, in our country, it needs high-spirited individuals deeply appreciative of the sanctity of individual and communal life – people thoroughly convinced that our national spirit is predicated, among other things, on how we sanctify our personal lives. Society needs people who understand that there is nothing wrong with enjoying life, but that this is only one part of the larger tapestry of social values to which we are meant to be committed.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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