Parashat Acharei Mot – Erev Shabbat 22nd April 2022 (5782)
Week of 17-23 April 2022
Torah portion: Leviticus 16 :1-20 :27 Haftarah: Ezekiel 22 :1-19
Theme: Holiness and Responsibility
Reading Leviticus is usually a challenge for us, due to its many detailed descriptions of laws and regulations. However, from a literary perspective, the book of Leviticus forms the very center of the Torah and deserves our attention. In the book of Leviticus, God speaks in several direct speeches to Moses from the Tent of Meeting – a kind of “portable Sinai” (cf. Bergsma, Pitre, p.207) – before the people continue their journey towards the promised land. The main theme of Leviticus is the constitution of Israel as a holy people in whose very center God wants to dwell with his Shechinah. Much of Leviticus revolves around the categories holy vs. common and clean vs. unclean. A holy God wants to dwell among a holy people.
If the book of Leviticus is at the center of the Torah, then a part of Parashat Acharei Mot forms the very center of Leviticus itself, describing the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, in chapter 16. The chapter is surrounded by the “cleanliness code” (Lev. 11-15) and the “Holiness Code” (Lev. 17-25). The Day of Atonement can thus be seen as a climax, a kind of cleansing rite for an entire nation (cf. Bergsma, Pitre, p.215). Interestingly, Acharei Mot is read six months before and after Yom Kippur as if to remind the readers that not only on the actual holiday itself but in any season, it is appropriate to focus on self-scrutiny and atonement (cf. Etz Hayim, p.679).
Parashat Acharei Mot describes a very specific ritual, exercised on Yom Kippur, which for today’s ears might be fascinating and repelling at the same time: two identical goats were selected and brought before the sanctuary. Only the lot (Hebrew: goral) decided which goat was marked “for the Lord” and sacrificed in the sanctuary, and which “for Azazel” and sent into the desert to die, carrying the sins of the people. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch among others interprets the symbolism of this rite, saying that in particular on the Day of Atonement people have a free will. People, at any time in their lives have the potential to incline towards the good or the bad. However, there is also the lot. The lot, the goral, decides which one of the two goats will be marked for Azazel. Here the inexplicable question arises how free will and (divine) predestination go together. The described ritual on Yom Kippur can be a reminder to take responsibility for our actions as well as for the given situations into which we were born and which are out of our hands, but where we still must strive to find the right response (cf. Goldberger, p.325).
Holiness in the Torah then, so it seems, goes together with responsibility. This is a very down to earth holiness and challenges us to scrutinize ourselves as to whether we still are living up to what we believe.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Meditate on the fact that God wants to dwell in the midst of his people 2. Have you experienced situations where free will and predestination come together? Bibliography: Bergsma J., Pitre B., A Catholic Introduction to the Bible (San Francisco: 2018); Etz Hayim Thora and Commentary (New York: 1999); Goldberger M., Schwarzes Feuer auf weissem Feuer (Basel: 2012)
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Barbara Kauffmann, Germany, Bat Kol Alumna: 2010, 2011, 2012
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