3 May 2024

Week of 28 April-4 May 2024

Torah portion: Leviticus 16:1-18:30   Haftarah: Ezekiel 22:1-19

Theme: crossing boundaries

The central theme of this week’s parashah revolves around boundaries: between the sacred and the profane (16:1-22), purity and impurity (16:23-34), proper and improper ways to kill and eat meat (Ch 17) and laws about sexual boundaries (Ch 18).

        The Eternal speaks to Moses “after the death” (acharei mot) of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, “who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Eternal” (16:1). This refers to events described in Parashat Shemini, where the priests died at “the instance of the Eternal” for transgressing the boundaries of correct ritual behaviour set out in the Torah (Lev 10:1-2). Between these two passages, we find a series of laws regarding purity, also concerned with boundaries (Eskenazi, 681).

        Next, a boundary is established within the Tent of Meeting (ohel moed), separating the profane from the holy in the Shrine (hakodesh), where the Ark of the Covenant is kept. The High Priest alone can cross this Boundary on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Sacrificial offerings, special clothing and ritual bathing also maintain the boundaries between holy and profane, setting the High Priest apart from others (Eskenazi, 681).

        Before outlining the laws about forbidden sexual relations (18:6-23), the biblical authors make a clear distinction between the people of Israel and those of Egypt and Canaan, stating that Israel shall not follow the laws of either nation (18:3). These “geographic and cultural” boundaries help to create a clear delineation between Israel’s past (Egypt) and its future (Canaan) and set it apart from these nations, establishing “geographical and cultural borders” (Eskenazi, 688). This not only offered “a moral justification for the displacement of the Canaanites” but also declared that such practices were unacceptable within Israelite society (Berlin & Brettler, 237).

        It is not within the scope of this commentary to examine these boundaries in detail. However, they deserve considerable attention, particularly considering the insights that contemporary understandings of power and sexuality bring to them. It is also important to note the perspective from which these laws are written and interpreted: one that sees women as “extensions” of the men to whom they are related (Eskenazi, 679).

        It is important to acknowledge the trauma that is associated with the crossing of many of these boundaries, particularly those related to the family. It is equally important to recognise the pain and violence that has resulted from the misinterpretation and decontextualisation of 18:22, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman” (Eskenazi, 692). Judith Plaskow notes that a contemporary response to this material “requires both criticism and transformation. It requires careful examination and rejection of those presuppositions of Leviticus that produce and support sexual injustice” (Eskenazi, 697).

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. What part do power, race, gender, wealth, and sexuality play in setting and maintaining boundaries that disadvantage others? 2. Some boundaries should not be crossed, while others require continual renegotiation and redefinition. What boundaries in our own traditions need to be re-examined?

Bibliography: Berlin & Brettler eds., The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd Edition (Oxford, 2014), Eskenazi, ed. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (URJ, 2008).This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by Mark David Walsh
Bunurong Country, Australia, Bat Kol Alumnus: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013


Comments are closed