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Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim Summary

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim Torah Portion: Leviticus 16:1–20:27

Parshat Acharei Mot

Parshat Acharei Mot opens with a description of Yom Kippur, arguably the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. How do we observe Yom Kippur? That depends on who's asking! If you're a regular member of the children of Israel, then you've got a strict diet of no eating; no drinking; no washing yourself; no anointing yourself with oil, perfume, or other cosmetics; no marital relations; and no wearing of leather. In addition to the prohibitions, you're meant to spend the whole day in synagogue, praying to God and asking Him to forgive you for your sins.

But what if you are the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest? In that case, you have a markedly different itinerary. As the parsha describes, you are supposed to enact a highly-involved, extremely dramatic, day-long ritual that involves donning special clothing for the day (with multiple "costume changes"), immersing in a ritual bath no fewer than five times, sending away a "scapegoat," and bringing an array of sacrifices to God, including a cloud of burning incense. It is only with this cloud of burning incense that you are permitted to enter in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Mishkan(Tabernacle) where God's presence is said to rest, where no man is otherwise allowed to enter.

What's so special about this cloud of incense? If 364 days a year, no person is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, then why should it be that on Yom Kippur, we make an exception for the High Priest — and what does the cloud of incense have to do with it? Rabbi Fohrman addresses this question in his video, "The (Surprising) Meaning & Purpose Of Yom Kippur." In addition, he offers an innovative reading of the meaning of the holiday of Yom Kippur that will change the way that you relate to this holiest day of the year.

And if you want to dive deeper into the meaning of Yom Kippur, then your next stop needs to be Imu Shalev and David Block's video, "How Do Yom Kippur Rituals Atone For Our Sins?" In that video, they ask the "big question" about sacrifice: I bring an animal before God and kill it on the altar — why is God pleased with that? And how might that change the way that we understand Yom Kippur?"

After Acharei Mot concludes its discussion of the laws of Yom Kippur, we hear a smattering of other laws that all revolve around holiness: laws about how to bring sacrifices, a prohibition on eating the blood of animals, and a prohibition on following in the ways of the Canaanites and the Egyptians (which is succeeded by a long list of gilui arayot, forbidden sexual relations).

Parshat Kedoshim

Parshat Kedoshim continues to explore the theme of "holiness" that we read about in Parshast Acharei Mot. It opens with a bold statement from God: "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy." What follows is a long-list of laws that are meant to help us to attain holiness. Below is a partial list of these laws. Read it carefully and see what you notice. Does anything strike you as odd? Are there common themes between these laws?

  • Observe the Sabbath
  • Don’t serve idols
  • Don’t eat sacrifices on the third day
  • Don’t harvest the corners of your field
  • Don’t steal
  • Don’t lie
  • Don’t oppress others
  • Don’t steal
  • Don’t curse a deaf person
  • Be unbiased in
  • judgement
  • Don’t spread gossip
  • You shall surely rebuke your fellow
  • Love your neighbor as yourself (if you want to learn more about this particular law, Rabbi Fohrman has a great video on it here [5774])
  • Don’t shave the corner of your beard
  • Don’t engage in sorcery
  • Respect the elderly
  • Dear God
  • Take care of the stranger
  • Don’t sacrifice your children
  • Don’t commit adultery
  • Don’t commit bestiality
  • …and many more.

You may have noticed that many of these laws are inspiring examples of what we might call "social justice" — the imperative to relate with compassion and kindness to those in need and to provide for them. But many of the laws, particularly the ones that govern man's relationship with God, seem dry and technical: like the prohibition on leaving a sacrifice over until the third day. The text goes back and forth between these different kinds of laws with seemingly no rhyme or reason. Rabbi Fohrman raises this question in his video, "Social Justice...and Sacrifices?" Instead of concluding that the laws of Kedoshim are a random assortment, in no particular order, Rabbi Fohrman shows you that there is a very intentional — and very powerful — logic behind their presentation.

If you're interested in further probing this list of laws, you may have noticed something else strange — that not only does this list seem to be in random order, but it's far from clear what all of these laws have to do with "holiness" in the first place! Serving God and helping the poor seem like very "holy" things to do... but not shaving the corners of your beard? Not eating fruit from a tree's first three years? These are just two examples from the parsha, but there are many more to be found. In their video, Imu Shalev and David Block suggest that the key to understanding Parshat Kedoshim and its array of strange laws is to understand the concept of holiness — an idea that is plagued by misconceptions. Holiness doesn't mean hanging out in the clouds with God and the angels. What is holiness and how do these laws help us to achieve it? And how does that relate to God's holiness? Watch here to find out.