Acharei Mot, the first of this week's two parashiyot, begins on an unsettling note—a reminder of the death of Aaron's sons and the suggestion that such tragedies might occur again unless the priests take specified steps to prevent them. After the straightforward descriptions of the priests, their duties, and their clothing in the early parts of Leviticus, this reminder of the danger of their work casts the whole book in a different light. The Rabbis capture this by arranging that the portion begin with those two somber words, "After [or "Instead of"] Death." These are not "customs and ceremonies" (the old Reform description of ritual)—they are the substance of life and death itself. They must be done properly.
At the end of Exodus, as evidence that Moses had assembled the pieces of the Tabernacle (Mishkan, in Hebrew) correctly, the cloud of God's Presence fills the Tabernacle (see Exodus 40:33-34). Awesome!—we may have remarked when we first read it. But now we see that it was not only awesome, but also ominous. Because the cloud fills the Tabernacle, Aaron may enter it only with certain clothing—another indication that the priests' clothing was part of the Mishkan itself. His clothing is to be of linen, humble clothing, befitting one who is asking for forgiveness for his sins and the people's (16:4); only after he has completed the expiation rites does he don the gold-embroidered garments of his high station. And he must enter the Tabernacle with an animal to be offered up—he must enter, in other words, in his role as a priest, not as an onlooker. He is but the vehicle for the offering up of the animal.
After this, he presides over a singular rite that is unique to Yom Kippur—the lottery of the two goats, one of which (the more fortunate one!) is to be offered on the altar; the other is to be laden down with the sins of the people and led away to the wilds called Azazel. The first question that this passage raises is: why a lottery? The biblical sense is that God's hand is at work when human beings cast lots—the word for "lot" here is goral, which can also mean "destiny." The "fortunate" goat is the one on whom the lot fell to be offered up, for since all creatures must die, at least this goat is guaranteed a purposeful death: it dies for the purpose of clearing humans of sin. The other goat is less fortunate, for it dies of its own accord, whenever the howling wilderness claims it. This poor creature wanders about with the sins of the people on its head—a great (if invisible) spiritual burden, all the more poignant because we assume that the goat has no idea what he is carrying. This of course is the origin of the "scapegoat"—a person or a group who has been made to carry the sins of people in power, a phenomenon that Jews have known well in many lands over the centuries.
Traditional Jews confront this passage every Yom Kippur morning, hopefully asking themselves: who has replaced the High Priest? Are there rituals or other actions we can perform that can protect us from death? On Yom Kippur we usually wear our best clothes, not our simplest—should we wear what Aaron wore? Early Reform Jews replaced this passage with another for Yom Kippur morning, despite their insistence that we were to see ourselves as a priest people dedicated to bringing the nations to the service of God. Should we restore it—should we say that Aaron, filled with trepidation about entering the place where God's Presence dwells, is us as we enter a synagogue?
The passage concludes with some of the laws of Yom Kippur: "You shall afflict yourselves" (long understood to mean abstaining from food, drink, and sexual activity, and not wearing leather shoes or make-up), refraining from work, and observing the day as though it were Shabbat (see Leviticus 16:29-31). Most of us observe these now. Is that enough? Is there a humane analogy to the scapegoat? Might we consider looking through precious papers, jewelry, books, or CD's—precious enough that we might grieve at their absence-and sending them off to a worthy cause-worthier than the cruel wilds of Azazel?
After a chapter (17) outlining other ritual requirements, Acharei Mot concludes with Chapter 18, which details forbidden sexual relations, and is read in traditional communities on Yom Kippur afternoon. One of the reasons often given for this choice was the ancient custom of holding dances on the night that Yom Kippur concluded, which suggested a need to offer a warning about immoral sexual behavior. Whether or not this was the reason, the passage offers another aspect of the theme of purity—here brought from the lofty realm of the ancient Tabernacle into the contemporary bedroom. The rationale for these prohibitions is the prevalence of these practices among the Egyptians and the Canaanites. The most infamous of these is Leviticus 18:22, which opaquely reads, "You shall not lie with a male [according to] woman-lyings; it is a toevah." Toevah is used in the Torah and elsewhere almost exclusively to refer to polytheistic practices, suggesting that that is the underlying problem with what is generally understood to be a description of homosexual activity. Because of the ambiguity of the language, liberal Jews have generally rejected this whole section as binding; indeed they have considered it as outmoded as the description of the activities of the High Priest in a structure that no longer exists. The Reform Movement has never included Chapter 18 in the Yom Kippur afternoon reading.
What it has included is the next chapter in Leviticus, Chapter 19. As arcane as are many sections of Acharei Mot, just so straightforward and clear are the verses in Parashat K'doshim. The portion begins with God offering Moses a lofty goal: the Israelite people shall be "holy" (kedoshim), "as" (ki) God is holy (Leviticus 19:1). The Midrash has Moses blanching before such an impossible comparison: "We shall be holy as God is holy??!! How is that possible?" "Relax," God says, "Revere your mother and father, observe Shabbat, don't make idols, leave the corners of your field for the poor. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall not go about gossiping among your people. You can do this."
We can do this. We do not need to emulate the actions of the High Priest; we can do better and emulate God, who feeds the hungry and clothes the naked and demands that we not shed blood but use just weights and measures, practice justice in the courts, and place no stumbling blocks before the blind. Reading this passage in Iyar rather than waiting till Tishrei reminds us that we can act on these imperatives now, this week; we do not have to hold off till Yom Kippur. By the holiness of our day-to-day behavior we shall live up to our destiny as a priest people and bring others close to the holy God.
Acharei mot, kedoshim tihyu. To keep death at bay, to fill the world with holiness and not destructiveness, we need to act like the holy beings we are.
Rabbi Richard N. Levy recently retired as Rabbi of the Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR, where he continues to teach in the fields of liturgy, spiritual growth, and social justice. He is a past Director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the campus and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.