In Leviticus 18:3, in Acharei Mot, it is written, "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."
Midrash likens this verse to Song of Songs 2:2, "As a lily among the thorns, so is my love among the daughters." Israel had been caught in the brambles and thorns of Egyptian practices, enslaved both physically and mentally, and to copy the practices of that place of bondage is to give in to the thorns . . . to kill the lily. Midrash continues with the comparison as follows:
Rabbi Azaria in the name of Rabbi Y'hudah son of Rabbi Shimon says: The matter may be compared to the case of a king who had an orchard planted with one row of fig trees, one of vines, one of pomegranates, and one of apples. He entrusted it to a tenant and went away. After a time, the king came and looked in at the orchard to ascertain what it had yielded. He found it full of thorns and briars, so he brought woodcutters to raze it. He looked closely at the thorns and noticed among them a single rose-colored flower. He smelled it, and his spirits calmed down. The king said: "The whole orchard shall be saved because of this flower." In a similar manner, the whole world was created only for the sake of the Torah. . . . God saw a single rose-colored flower, to wit, Israel. God took it and smelled it when God gave them [the Israelites] the Ten Commandments, and God's spirits were calmed when they said, We will do, and we will hear (Exodus 24:7). Said the Holy One, "The orchard shall be saved on account of this flower. For the sake of the Torah and of Israel the world shall be saved." (Vayikra Rabbah23:3)
Leviticus 18 continues with a litany of commandments concerning forbidden sexual relationships, beginning with the verse, "None of you men shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness: I am the Eternal" (Leviticus 18:6). The list of people whose nakedness should not be uncovered includes one's mother, one's father's wife, one's aunt, one's sister, one's half-sister, and one's daughter. A reader might conclude that because the chapter began with the admonition against copying the practices in the lands of Egypt and Canaan, these forbidden relationships were among those practices. But perhaps, through a modern lens, we may discover a different interpretation.
The majority of the commandments listed are against incest and imply sexual relations through the euphemism of uncovering nakedness. "Your father's nakedness, that is, the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover" (Leviticus 18:7). The reference is emphasized in Genesis 2:24 where it is written, ". . . they [a man and his wife] become one flesh," meaning the nakedness of one's mother is the nakedness of one's father, for by being married, they are of one flesh.
Our chapter sheds important light on the mysterious events following the Flood, where we find Ham, the youngest son of Noah, boasting to his two brothers that he had just seen "his father's nakedness." His brothers Shem and Japheth walk backward with a cloth to cover the exposed parent, and the text makes it clear that "facing backward, they did not see their father's nakedness" (Genesis 9:23). When the story is understood literally to refer to Noah himself, it leaves much room for confusion, particularly when the one who receives punishment and is cursed is Canaan, Ham's son. What did Canaan do after all? But based on Leviticus 18, when we understand Noah's nakedness to refer to his wife, the mystery begins to be solved. Canaan is the result of incest between Ham and his own mother. When we read the opening verse of this story, "Noah's sons who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And Ham?he was the father of Canaan" (Genesis 9:18), we wonder why Canaan is mentioned at all in a list of Noah's sons. In light of Leviticus 18 the answer becomes clearer.
"Your father's nakedness" is a metaphor for the nakedness of your mother. Is it possible that the metaphors don't stop there? Perhaps nakedness itself is also a metaphor for something else. The first thing Adam and Eve realize after they eat from the Tree of All Knowledge is that they are naked. They sew together fig leaves as loincloths to cover themselves. There seems to be a connection between clothing oneself and being enlightened.
As mentioned above, the majority of the commandments in this chapter concern the sacred relationships between family members. In so many ways, the people in our immediate family know us best. They are the keepers of the knowledge of our good, and our evil. They know the words that make us most upset. They know the wounds that are most raw. They know our insecurities, our fears, as no one else does. Like Samson's lover Delilah, who knew his strength was in his hair, the people closest to us know our strengths and also our most hidden weaknesses. Before them, our careful facades are plainly exposed.
If we read "nakedness" as vulnerability, we discover a subtler commandment hidden in this chapter. When we become furious with one another, when we feel that everything we have planted is full of thorns and briars, our fists clench, our teeth set, we want to bring in the woodcutters and raze it all to the ground. Then we must look closer, beyond the rivalries and pain, to recognize that single rose-colored flower . . . the heart of our mother, father, and sibling, the heart of our friend, the beating heart of those nearest to us, and tell ourselves, "This whole orchard shall be saved because of this heart." Because it is with this heart that I once fell in love, and I still remember. In Vayikra Rabbah 23:4 we read:
Rabbi Chanan of Zepphoris interpreted the verse as applying to the practice of kindness. It often happens that ten men will enter the house of a mourner and not one of them is able to open his mouth and say the Mourner's Benediction; then, if anyone present opens his mouth and recites the benediction, he is like "a lily among the thorns."
The people who are closest to you are the people whom you know best. Do not uncover their weakness. Do not expose their vulnerability. Let us clothe our loved ones with kindness. Let us wrap them in blessings as with a garment.
Rabbi Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles, California.