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Acharei Mot 5779-2019

“The Forbidden Relationships Work Both Ways”
(Revised and updated from Acharei Mot 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Acharei Mot, we encounter, in a very forceful manner, the rules and regulations regarding immorality and forbidden sexual relationships.

In Leviticus 18:3, the Torah boldly declares, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ , You, the People of Israel, must not perform the practices of the land of Egypt in which you dwelt, or perform the practices of the land of Canaan to which I bring you. Do not follow their traditions. Rather, says G-d, (Leviticus 18:5) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם, וָחַי בָּהֶם, אֲנִי השׁם , And you shall observe My decrees and My laws which a person shall carry out and by which he shall live, I am the L-rd. The Torah (Leviticus 18:30), then proceeds to list many prohibited sexual relationships between relatives and concludes, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת מִשְׁמַרְתִּי , You shall safeguard My charge, אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם , I am the L-rd your G-d.

As we often note, the family structure is regarded by Judaism as the basic construct of society and civilization. Judaism cannot emphasize enough the centrality of family life, because all of morality depends upon it. Stronger family life, results in a stronger society, and a more beneficial communal lifestyle.

Imagine if you will, how extremely difficult it was for the Hebrews of old, to share the same lands with many ancient tribes, who, in the name of their religions, zealously practiced all sorts of sexual perversions. In the midst of the satyrs and holy prostitutes who served in their pagan temples, the Jews tried to lead a revolutionary life of morality.

Clearly, the Torah was the most radical document in its time. After all, what we today consider to be “sexual decadence,” was commonly practiced and entirely acceptable among the Canaanite nations and the neighbors among whom the Jews lived. It is not at all surprising, therefore, to learn that, according to Jewish tradition, the Israelites in Egypt had declined to the 49th level of impurity, and were just one level away from oblivion.

We often look upon the ancients as “primitives” with little or no education, few opportunities to appreciate the finer things in life and, consequently, thoroughly subject to the vile blandishments of their times and society. On the other hand, we view contemporary society as stronger, more sophisticated, more educated, and far more in control of our natures than the ancients. But, truth be told, the ethical and moral challenges which we face today are as great, perhaps even greater, than those faced in antiquity.

Frankly, it is very difficult to be a Yeshiva boy in Sodom. The impact of our modern day Sodom is constant, relentless and crushing. Many of us who have lived through the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair in the United States and have seen our vaunted legislators, the American Congress, vote to release to the general public, to even our little children, the most prurient information which was of little or no relevance to anyone, have much reason for concern. The revelations of the “Me Too” movement, and, of course, the vulgar contemporary entertainment, make the Clinton era shenanigans appear rather demure! Without doubt, we are living in an age where the challenge to remain moral is greater than ever.

That is why the admonition in next week’s parasha, (Leviticus 19:2) קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ , Be holy, be sacred, is particularly timely. This statement, as interpreted by the Ramban to mean be “separate,” is especially relevant. We need to separate ourselves from those things which rob us of our holiness.

In light of this, it should be quite clear why parashat Acharei Mot and the forbidden sexual relationships are read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Obviously, on the day of Yom Kippur, when we try to achieve forgiveness and atonement, the sexual trespasses are among the foremost to be emphasized.

It is therefore fascinating that the commentators suggest that one of the reasons for reading this portion dealing with עֲרָיוֹתArayot, forbidden relationships, on Yom Kippur afternoon is that by reading this portion on this holy day, we, the People of Israel, remind the Al-mighty, that He too must remain faithful to us–just as He has commanded us to remain faithful to our partners. “You, G-d, must be loyal to us. We beseech You to never exchange us for another people.”

Every portion of the Torah has dramatic and profound messages, and is filled with the most wonderful insights. For us, it is vital to search for, and uncover, those messages that are relevant to our times and lives.

Perhaps there is nothing more meaningful for us during these challenging times than to underscore the need for all human beings, and especially the People of Israel and G-d Almighty, to affirm our sacred loyalty to each other.

May you be blessed.