A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Aharei Mot 5763
Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30
April 26, 2003 24 Nisan 5763
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun
"All beginnings are difficult." This rabbinic maxim resonates with us on many levels. As individuals, we experience the challenge of beginning a new job, a new phase of life, a new relationship or a new place of residence. As a Jewish people, we also recognize and ritualize this truism. We have just concluded our Passover celebration, in which we commemorate and reenact the difficult beginnings of our national identity. The Mishnah instructs us to organize our Seder with the awareness of the difficulty of beginnings: "One begins with disgrace and concludes with glory" (Mishnah Pesahim 10:4). Therefore, we open the Magid section of the Hagaddah with the memory of our origins as idolaters and slaves: "In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshippers;" and "My father was a wandering Aramean." The ritual of eating matzah helps us to further internalize this message. The "Bread of Affliction" brings us in touch with our humble beginnings as a poor and persecuted people.
This Shabbat we read about another beginning: the clean slate we achieve following the rituals of Yom Kippur. According to our tradition, we celebrate several "new years" (see Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1). Pesah marks the birth of our nation, the springtime rebirth of nature, and the first month of the Hebrew calendar, Nisan. However, we calculate the Jewish year according to the Rosh Hashanah in the month of Tishrei, which marks the creation of the world and our penitential season. According to Parashat Aharei Mot, the commencement of our year is a time for affliction. The Torah teaches, "And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self—denial" (Lev. 16:29). In one common translation, this verse states that "you shall afflict your souls" on Yom Kippur. For the rabbis, this commandment of self—induced affliction meant a day of fasting and abstinence from drinking, bathing, anointing, wearing leather shoes and engaging in sexual relations (Mishnah Yoma 8:1).
Therefore, at both beginning points in the Jewish calendar — in Nisan and in Tishrei, at Passover and at Yom Kippur — we experience hardship. In both instances, we dramatize the reality of "All Beginnings are Difficult" through our eating. On Pesah, we ingest the "Bread of Affliction." On Yom Kippur, we "afflict our souls" by abstaining from all food or drink.
This striking parallel suggests an important Jewish value. Through our sufferings and our self discipline, we can achieve greatness. The Zohar calls matzah the "bread of healing." This term for flat and tasteless bread (which often hurts the stomach!) is somewhat surprising. However, the Zohar argues that a week of eating matzah is medicinal, healing us from our arrogance, our ego, and our evil inclinations. Leavened bread, hametz, represents our puffed—up natures. By cleansing our homes of this symbolic force and stripping away our diet of any leaven, we return to the core of our humanity. We can be reborn anew, liberated from the obstacles which keep us apart from God and from the best of our inner natures. So too on Yom Kippur, we have an opportunity for rebirth and repentance through the art of self denial.
This year, we conclude our week of matzah, the Bread of Affliction, with a Shabbat parashah about afflicting ourselves on Yom Kippur. This interesting juxtaposition gives us an opportunity to contemplate the relationship between suffering and renewal, trials and triumph, the difficulty of new starts and the path towards self transformation. Both as individuals and as a nation, we can embrace the painful challenges of new beginnings with the faith that our journeys in life will bring healing, growth and ultimately, redemption.