Sermons and Parsha'iot         Parshat AchareiMot-Kedoshim: Leviticus 16:1-20:27


Summary

There are fifty-four separate Torah portions. There are some years, therefore, when there are fewer Shabbatot than Torah portions. In those years, specific Torah portions are combined and read together on one Shabbat. This is one of those years.

After the death (“acharei mot”) of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s eldest sons, God tells Moses to instruct Aaron not to come freely into the Holy of Holies. Only once a year, on the tenth day of the seventh month, is he to enter the shrine behind the curtain. Leviticus 16 describes the ritual of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. The central action of this ritual involved taking two goats and casting lots over them. One was marked for Adonai, and one for “Azazel,” probably a desert demon. After offering bulls for sin offerings and burning incense (and sprinkling blood on the sides and cover of the Mishkan), the High Priest then slaughtered the goat designated for Adonai. Using its blood  (and more blood of the bulls), he sprinkled the altar seven times. The High Priest then placed his hands on the head of the goat designated for Azazel and confessed all of the iniquities and sins of the entire Hebrew community. These sins were transferred to the head of the goat. The goat was then sent off into the wilderness carrying with it the sins of the entire community. Hence the term “scapegoat.”

Chapter 17 emphasizes that the eating of any domesticated animal required that it be part of an offering at the Tabernacle. There was no secular consumption of meat. The Torah again warns us not to eat blood. Chapter 18 lists the people we may not marry. The Torah warns us that if we break these restrictions, “the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that came before you.”

Kedoshim is the plural form of the Hebrew word kadosh, which means holy. The word holy has many meanings, among them: sacred, unique, divine, complete and separate. Holiness ties together the laws in this Torah portion. Chapters 19 and 20 are therefore called the “Holiness Code.” In just a few verses the Torah gives us a basic blueprint of appropriate religious and ethical behavior.

Some of these laws govern Jewish ritual: For example, we learn about shatnetz (i.e., the prohibition against wearing garments that contain both wool and linen). Similarly, we are forbidden to eat anything with its blood. And we are forbidden to cut the corners of our beards, to gash our flesh as a sign of mourning, or to tatoo our flesh. But most of Kedoshim teaches us about ethics – about how to live with other people: We are commanded to respect the elderly. We are commanded not to harvest the edges of our fields nor to pick up any fallen fruit – this is to allow the poor and the stranger to gather food for themselves. We are commanded not to steal or cheat; nor to defraud or oppress. We are commanded not to insult the deaf or to trip up the blind. We are commanded to be be fair in judgment and not to take vengeance or bear a grudge. We are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Commentary

  • In a midrash God says to Moses: “Tell the Israelites that just as I am separate, so you be separate; just as I am holy, so you be holy” (Leviticus Rabbah 24:4). Observing the laws which make up the Holiness Code would separate the Israelites from the surrounding nations, making the Israelites unique and special. 

  • In the Ten Commandments we read, “Honor your father and your mother.” In this week’s Torah portion, we are told to “revere” our parents. But note that here the word “mother” is written first followed by “father.” Some people point out that the Torah contains both these versions of this commandment in order to show that we need to treat our parents equally, that neither mother or father should come first in our honor or reverence for them.

    Also note that while the fifth of the Ten Commandments speaks of “honoring” our parents, Kedoshim uses the verb yareh (“to revere”) instead. The Sifra, a collection of midrashim on the book of Leviticus, explains that to revere one’s parents means that one should not sit in their chair, speak in their place, or contradict their words. It is further written in the Sifra that one is to provide parents with food and drink, clothes and warmth, and to guide their footsteps when they are old and frail.

Some Thoughts and Questions:

  1. Although our modern way of observing Yom Kippur differs from the description in this week’s parasha, there are some similarities. For example, the custom of wearing white derives from the white linen robes that the High Priest wore on that day. What does the color white signify to you? White is also used for the tachrichen, the linen clothes that Jews are traditionally buried in. Do you think that there is any connection between burial dress and the symbolism of Yom Kippur?

  2. When William Tyndale made the first English translation of the Bible some 500 years ago, he coined the phrase “scapegoat” to describe the goat destined for Azazel. What does the term mean in the context of the parasha? Does it mean the same thing in everyday speech? (Hint: What role does confession play on Yom Kippur?)

  3. The Hebrew word for part of the marrriage ceremony is Kiddushin. The word implies that the marriage partners are in some way holy (set aside, consecrated) to each other. Based on the teachings of parshat Kedoshim, what characteristics of a good marriage can be considered holy? (For example: being fair to each other, not “tripping each other up,” not holding grudges. What about acting as a couple to help the poor and the stranger in the community?)

  4. Describe some elements within Jewish life that set Jews apart from the rest of the world. Is it easier to maintain our identities as Jews if we are separate from the non-Jewish world? What are some advantages and disadvantages of being set apart? What makes you unique and special and sets you apart from the crowd? Does your Judaism play a role in this? Do you think Judaism or Jewish law has influenced the behavior of other peoples? Does your behavior influence anyone else? In what ways?

  5. It has been taught that most of the essential principles of Torah can be found in parshat Kedoshim. From the list in the Summary section, choose the laws that you consider to be most essential. Why are these important to you? Why would they be important to the Jewish people? What is the relationship between your own Jewish behavior and the laws that you selected?

  6. What kind of a community would be created by the observance of the Holiness Code? What do you do in your own life that gives you a sense of holiness?

  7. In Leviticus 19:18, we read: “Do not seek vengeance and do not bear a grudge. …” Rashi explains the difference between vengeance and a grudge: One person says, “Lend me your ax,” and the other says, “No.” The next day, the second one requests, “Lend me your ax,” and the first one says, “You wouldn’t lend yours to me, so I won’t lend mine to you!” That is vengeance. However, when the first person says, “Although you wouldn’t lend me your ax, I am not like you, so here it is” – that is bearing a grudge. Can you think of examples from your own life when you acted in this way? What’s wrong with seeking revenge or bearing a grudge? What would the world be like if everybody sought revenge?