Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim
April 24, 2021 | 12 Iyyar 5781
Torah: Leviticus 16:1-20:27; Triennial 17:8-19:14
Haftorah: Amos 9:7-15
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a D'var Torah on the Parsha by Ilana Kurshan called "Restricted Access". Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "When Injustice Seems Justified". And Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "Planting and Planted" in the Haftorah.
Restricted Access
Ilana Kurshan

The first parsha we read this week, Aharei Mot, takes its name from a reference to the death of the sons of Aaron, who brought a “strange fire” into the Holy of Holies. The parsha begins with the laws governing the high priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur, which are followed, one chapter later, by a list of illicit sexual relations. What is the connection between the death of Aaron’s sons, the Yom Kippur rites, and the prohibition on uncovering the nakedness of various individuals? And how can the juxtaposition of laws about sacred space and sexuality speak to the sanctification of intimacy in our own lives?

We might start by looking to the Yom Kippur liturgy, where the two parts of our parsha are also juxtaposed. The first part, about the death of Aaron’s sons and the priestly rituals of Yom Kippur, are chanted as the Torah reading on the morning of Yom Kippur; the second part of the parsha, about forbidden sexual relations, is the afternoon reading, as prescribed in the Talmud (Megillah 31a). Rashi comments that the afternoon reading was chosen so as to warn people not to sleep with those who are forbidden to them, because sexual sin is so prevalent. This does not explain why this reading was chosen for Yom Kippur in particular, and here Tosafot step in, explaining that women dress up on Yom Kippur and so it is especially important to warn men not to succumb to their wiles. According to this understanding, the afternoon reading was not chosen simply because it follows the morning reading in the Torah, but because it serves as a much-needed warning on this particular day. Yet shouldn’t this kind of sin be furthest from our mind on Yom Kippur, a day on which all sexual intercourse is forbidden? A close reading of our parsha suggests otherwise. 

The beginning of the parsha draws a connection between the death of Aaron’s sons and the prohibition on entering the Holy of Holies “at all times” (16:2). Since God appears in a cloud in the Holy of Holies, Aaron must enter only when specifically authorized to do so, which, as we learn from the end of the chapter, was “in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month” (16:29), namely Yom Kippur. When entering the Holy of Holies, Aaron had to first bathe and dress in specific sacred vestments, bearing specific sacrificial offerings to atone for himself, his household, and the whole congregation of Israel. These detailed instructions, following immediately after the reference to the death of Aaron’s sons, suggest that Nadav and Avihu failed to observe the highly specific regulations governing entry into the Holy of Holies, whether by entering at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes, or bearing the wrong sacrifices.

The Talmud adds that the entry into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur was a moment of such trepidation that the High Priest would make sure to offer only a short prayer (Yoma 52b), lest the people waiting outside grow frightened that something terrible had befallen him inside the sacred precinct. Since only the High Priest could enter, the maintenance of the Holy of Holies posed a particular challenge; how could anyone get inside to clean it out? The Mishnah (Middot 4:5) relates that there were trapdoors in an upper chamber opening into the Holy of Holies by which workmen were let down in baskets so that they would not “feast their eyes on the Holy of Holies.” This most sacred chamber of the Temple was a place of highly restricted access, with very specific rules governing who might enter and when.

It is against this backdrop that we can read the laws of forbidden sexual relations in our parsha, which are also about restricted access. Just as it was forbidden for the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies “at all times,” it is also forbidden—by the laws of Niddah—for a man to sleep with a woman “at all times.” And just as not anyone could enter the Holy of Holies, so too not anyone is permitted sexually to everyone else. A man may not sleep with his mother, or his father’s wife, or his son’s daughter, etc. The Torah uses the phrase “uncovering the nakedness” to describe these prohibitions, reminiscent of the prohibition on the workers “feasting their eyes” on the sacred shrine. Not everything is meant to be flaunted and out in the open; the most sacred spaces, like the most sacred connections, are for certain individuals only. Perhaps this is why the Talmud, in describing the plundering of the Temple by the Romans (Gittin 56b), relates that Titus entered the sacred shrine and committed an act of rape – suggesting that violating the Temple, for the rabbis, was as much an abomination as violating a woman. 

Of course, the gendered language of these texts may seem foreign if not outright offensive to our modern sensibilities. The priest is always male, and the Torah’s laws about uncovering nakedness are addressed to men alone. But to dismiss these texts on account of their sexist rhetoric is to ignore their message for our own time, when we aspire to more egalitarian relationships. Yom Kippur, a day of supreme intimacy between human beings and God, is an occasion to focus on other intimate connections as well. As Bonna Devora Haberman z”l has eloquently argued, entry into the Holy of Holies can be a model for sexual intimacy, which should not take place at any time, with any person. The rabbinic term for marriage—the exclusive partnership between two individuals—is “Kiddushin,” meaning sanctity. The Yom Kippur rites, with their emphasis on exclusivity and restricted access to sacred space, precede the laws of forbidden sexual relations to remind us we can elevate our most intimate relationships to the level of the sacred.
When Injustice Seems Justified
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Text: Vayikra 19:15

You shall do no corruption in judgment, you shall not favor the poor, nor defer to the great; in righteousness shall you judge your fellow.

  • Whom do you think is responsible to prevent corruption in judgement?
  • What might cloud the ability to judge fairly?
  • What is the relationship of the opening phrase ‘you shall do no corruption’ to the rest of the verse?
  • What is the relationship of the closing phrase ‘in righteousness shall you judge your fellow’ to the rest of the verse?
Commentary: Rashi Vayikra 19:15

You shall not favor the poor – you shall not say, "This is a poor man, and the rich man has in any case the duty of supporting him; I will find in his favor and he will obtain some support in a respectable fashion.”
Nor defer to the great – you shall not say, "This is a rich man, this man is of noble descent, how can I possibly put him to shame and be witness to his shame? There is penalty for such a thing!" …
In righteousness shall you judge your fellow – Take this at its simple meaning. Another explanation is: Judge your fellow person with an inclination in his favor.
  • In the argument presented by Rashi, the reasoning for favoring a poor person seems noble, so why is it forbidden?
  • What do you think that Rashi means by suggesting that ruling against a great person would lead to a penalty?
  • Does the judge stand to gain anything in the case of the poor or the rich person? Why is the judge ruling as s/he does?
  • For the closing phrase of the verse Rashi offers two readings. Consider the first reading: Why would the Torah call the person being judged ‘your fellow’? What does this phrase add to what was already said in the verse?
  • In his second reading Rashi leaves the court room and moves into everyone’s life. We judge others all the time, it is part of human interaction. How does Rashi suggest that we understand the word “righteousness” when applied to others?

Commentary: R. S.R. Hirsch Vayikra 19:15

A warning to the public: You shall do no corruption in judgement. The public, through the institutions of judgement, is in a position of power vis-a-vis the individual. This position should not be abused by judging unrighteously or arbitrarily.

  • If you can read the verse in Hebrew: what gave rise to the idea that the beginning of the verse is intended for the public?*
  • How might Hirsch’s reading apply today?

* A little help: The verb in the beginning is in plural form. The rest are in singular form.
Planting and Planted
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

The ending of our haftarah is strikingly beautiful. The ideas are utopian, the images are poetic, and the words themselves sound good. We are promised a happily-ever-after, an ending to the cycles of exile, which is not promised to any other nation which has once been rescued from exile. We are unique and happy, planted back into our homeland.  
These final few verses stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the Book of Amos. Amos is an early prophet to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, leaving his home kingdom of Judah to rebuke the Northern Kingdom, juxtaposing their waywardness with the waywardness of the surrounding nations and promising their destruction. Our haftarah portion begins with the rehashing of these themes. We learn that the Philistines and the Arameans have also experienced their own versions of Exodus-style deliverance by our God. And we are threatened with a terrible exile, one in which we will be shaken as if through a sieve - all of the wrongdoers will be captured in the sieve and then killed by sword. The righteous will make it through the sieve to be scattered among the nations.
And then the comfort begins - eventually God will rebuild the kingdom of David and gather in the remnant of the people. The haftarah ends, in Robert Alter’s translation of Amos 9:13-15:
“Look, days are coming, said the LORD,  
when the plowman shall overtake the reaper 
and the treader of grapes the sower of seed.  
And the mountains shall drip fermented juice,  
and all the hills shall melt.  
And I will restore the fortunes of My people Israel,  
and they shall rebuild desolate towns and dwell there  
and plant vineyards and drink their wine.  
And they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. 
And I will plant them on their soil  
and they shall no more be uprooted from their soil  
that I have given them, said the LORD your God.” 
In this vision, there is even more than plenty. The first image, of the plowman overtaking the reaper, shares the same idea of plenty found in Leviticus 26:5, where we are told that if we observe God’s commandments, the times for all sorts of planting and harvesting activities will overflow into each other because there is so much abundance to grow and to harvest. The second half of the verse takes the idea even further - human activity is taken out of the equation and the mountains themselves drip with wine. Then, by the end of the chapter, humans become the thing that is planted, and God is our planter! The abundance that we were able to bring forth from the earth is transformed into an abundance of us whom God brings forth from the land which God gave to us.  
It’s a beautiful ending. And it seems to have little to do with the harsh prophecies that preceded it. Biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen famously wrote that we end with ‘roses and lavender instead of blood and iron.’ The world seems to have plenty of both - how do you reconcile the two? 
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