Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Aharei Mot-K'doshim
April 27, 1996 8 Iyar 5756
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
If the first half of this week's double parasha reminds you of Yom Kippur, despite our proximity to Passover, you are not in error. The two Torah readings for that solemn day are both drawn from Aharei Mot. Chapter 16, which we read at Shaharit on Yom Kippur morning, depicts the annual ceremony on the tenth day of the seventh month for cleansing the tabernacle of its impurities and the people of their sins. The English word "scapegoat" preserves a verbal relic of the day's most memorable feature – the goat destined to carry off symbolically the collective guilt of the nation into the wilderness. Chapter 18, reserved for Minha in the afternoon, defines the sexual practices which were to govern the domestic life of Israelite society.
The interlocking of synagogue and Scripture, of liturgy and Bible, is pervasive in Judaism. It attests to the manner in which a verbal form of worship unfolded to fill the vacuum created by the abrupt end of the temple sacrificial system in 70 C.E. The Bible, canonized gradually during the preceding centuries, provided the words for the petitions and praises, the affirmations of faith and study texts that became the fabric of Jewish liturgy. Largely the formal recitation of Scripture in public – psalms from the psalter, the three paragraphs of the Shema from the books of Deuteronomy and Numbers, the Torah in its entirety, selections from the prophets and all of the five scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, etc.), synagogue worship not only rested squarely on the biblical canon, but also served as its main medium of dissemination. In a moment of spiritual crisis, Judaism forged the synagogue, a setting of unique synergy in which Scripture yielded the language of prayer even as prayer deepened the knowledge of and attachment to Scripture.
The two chapters taken from Aharay Mot into the Yom Kippur liturgy signify something else as well: the twofold nature of Judaism's behavioral system. What is it that we believe God wants of us? We tend at first blush to think of mitzvot only in terms of positive and negative injunctions. But the readings for Yom Kippur sensitize us to a deeper classification. Absorbed with matters of purity and ritual, chapter 16 treats of the relationship between God and the community, including the individual. Impurities threaten to render the divine inaccessible. So once a year the pristine holiness of the sanctuary must be restored.
In contrast, chapter 18 treats of the manner in which human beings ought to relate to each other. If every woman in the household is fair game for sexual conquest, if every form of sexual experimentation is within bounds, then neither the family nor society will long endure. Sexual restraint generates cohesion, intensifying the relationships that are countenanced. Religion must comprise morality as well as theology if it is to enhance the social compact. Ancient Israel was to distance itself from Egypt not only geographically but also spiritually in its patterns of living no less than in its conception of God.
Thus the Yom Kippur liturgy appropriates both chapters 16 and 18 in order to stress the totality of Judaism as a system of belief and practice, of ritual and morality. The balance between the two is what counts. One must not be allowed to overwhelm the other. An exclusive concern with one's personal relationship to God is but another expression of ego–centrism, while conversely, a morality ungrounded in ultimate concerns is susceptible to easy disposal. By way of example, the Mishna points out that if the decadent citizens of Nineveh had responded to the prophetic rebuke of Jonah merely with fasting and sackcloth, the city would never have been spared. The biblical text, however, underscores that God took special note of their corresponding actions, the radical change in their treatment of each other. Reading the book of Jonah for Minha on Yom Kippur strips us of the illusion that repairing our ties with God is enough.
Indeed, nothing is more disconcerting than to see how a preoccupation with ritual can subvert morality. The Rabbis were not unmindful of the danger and recorded a chilling story as admonition. A number of daily Temple duties were regularly assigned to priests in advance through a form of lottery. One such duty was removing the ashes from the altar on which the daily sacrifice for the entire community was offered morning and afternoon. At first, however, this task was awarded only to volunteers, and if many stepped forward, they would compete by racing up the long inclined plane leading to the altar, with honors going to the winner.
On one occasion, two priests were about to finish in a dead heat, when one of them pulled out a knife and stabbed the other. A revered sage who had witnessed the travesty rose to commiserate with those assembled, though his words evinced greater concern for the desecration of the holy space than the loss of life. Suddenly, the father of the young priest appeared and rebuked the sage: "My son's death will atone for the sacrilege. But he is not dead yet. He continues to writhe before you and the knife is still not defiled. Yet all you worry about is pollution, neither (trying to save him nor) condemning his assailant." Murder had been reduced to a matter of ritual impurity!
The preservation of this moral tale reflects a religious culture capable of self–correction. It harbors voices of protest for times of imbalance. For Judaism, with all its attention to obligations to God, ritual remains the means; morality is the end, though to be effective they need to work in tandem. The way to the Golden Rule leads over the bridge to God. How striking that the sins for which we atone on Yom Kippur in the al heit confessional are primarily acts of immorality, offenses against other people!
The midrash echoes the same priority scale. "We are not to make the fence more important that the saplings it protects, lest it fall and damage them." How do we know this principle? From the error of Eve. When the serpent tried to ensnare her with a question that cunningly distorted the truth – "Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden (Genesis 3:1)?" – she countered with a distortion of her own that led to her downfall: "We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you did (Genesis 3:2)."
But God had said nothing about touching (Genesis 2:17). Eve had expanded the scope of the prohibition giving the serpent his chance. Later when she passed by the tree the serpent pushed her into the fruit without harm, whereupon, he said: "Look you did not die touching it, you will not die eating it."
As the walls of separation between Jew and Jew in Israel and America rise ever higher, we must not tire of reaffirming the basic temperateness of traditional Judaism. Excessive religious zeal that obliterates the distinction between ritual and morality, between our duties to God and our duties to each other only exacerbates the losses brought on by assimilation.
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,