Commentary for Acharei Mot

11 Apr

Most of this week’s parshah is also read on Yom Kippur, with chapter sixteen being read in the morning and chapter eighteen read in the afternoon. While chapter sixteen describes the service of the High Priest, chapter eighteen focuses on various prohibited behaviors. After a quick preface, the section is started with the commandment that “you shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you (Lev. 18:3).” The Torah then proceeds to spend the rest of the chapter running down a list of who can’t sleep with or sacrifice things to. If the Torah was going to spell out all of these prohibitions, why was the original statement necessary?

This week is also Shabbat Hagadol: the Shabbat directly preceding Passover. We can derive from the Gemarah (Shabbat 87b) that the first Shabbat Hagadol took place on the tenth of Nissan. This would have been the same day that the Israelites were instructed to choose a lamb for the paschal sacrifice. The Tosafot present a midrash that says that when the Egyptian firstborn saw that the Israelites were choosing lambs for sacrifice, they realized that the Israelites were preparing for the final plague (which Moses had announced in Ex. 11). Seeing this, they went to Pharaoh’s court and begged for Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that their lives would be spared, but Pharaoh and his courtiers would not relent, causing a brief civil war in Egypt of father against son.

This week’s special haftarah, a prophecy of coming redemption and judgment of the wicked and imploring the people to turn back to God, ends with a strange but striking promise and warning: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearsome day. And he will reconcile parents with children and children with parents so that when I come I do not strike the land with utter destruction (Mal. 3:23-24).” Pharaoh and his courtiers so badly wanted to keep the Israelites in slavery that they were willing to sacrifice their own children to do so. The Canaanites were well known for sacrificing their children to the idol Molech (which is explicitly prohibited in Lev. 18:21). It was not just the specific practices listed in Lev. 18 that the Israelites were commanded not to imitate, but the entire concept of doing something so wholly unnatural within a family that parents ad children would hard or even kill each other, as the Egyptians and Canaanites did, that is so abhorrent to God that God would be willing to lay down such utter destruction because of it.

 

In memory of Seymour Sobel (Shmuel Betzalel ben Mordechai David v’Sarah Tovah) z”l- A man who fully embodied both ends of the idea of Torah u’madah, and who set an example that things are worth fighting for.  May his memory be a blessing.

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