ACHAREI MOS (Leviticus, 16:1-20:27) — “From the Summit to the Gutter”

This week’s Torah Portion opens by describing the Yom Kippur Service in the Temple. Not surprisingly, this opening section is also the annual Torah Reading for Yom Kippur morning.

Yom Kippur is a sublime day of immense holiness. On Yom Kippur, G-d is especially close with His People, and offers this day as a time to atone for our sins. The Kohain Gadol, High Priest, spent the day conducting the Service. On this holiest day of the year, the High Priest made his annual visit to the Holy of Holies, a section of the Temple that was off-limits to him the rest of the year, and off-limits to the rest of the nation at all times.

The High Priest burnt incense in the Holy of Holies. According to Tradition, if his thoughts were not totally pure during his visit to the Holy of Holies, he would be struck down on the spot, and would have to be removed via a rope that was attached to his leg.

When the High Priest left the Holy of Holies, his face radiated with holiness. It was a time of joy and sanctity. The People of Israel rejoiced at the fact that they had been forgiven for all the sins of the past year. It was a time of rededication to G-d’s Torah.

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The end of this week’s Torah Portion is a sharp contrast to the beginning. This section, which is read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, admonishes us not to imitate our old neighbors:

Do not follow the ways of Egypt, where you once lived . . . (Leviticus, 18:3) That in itself fits in with the Yom Kippur theme. However, as the expression goes, the Devil is in the details.

The Torah goes on to list a sordid inventory of forbidden intimate relationships. From incest to bestiality, and everything in between, the Torah warns us not to engage in activities that will lead to our expulsion from the Land of Israel.

QUESTION: Does the Torah really have to address such behavior on Yom Kippur? We are fasting. We are depriving ourselves of creature comforts and spending the day immersed in thoughts of holiness and devotion. We have confessed our transgressions of the past year and promised to avoid the pitfalls of sin in the coming year. We have witnessed the purity of the High Priest coming out of the Holy of Holies. We are on a spiritual high. Is this the time to talk about resisting X-rated temptations??!!

Absolutely!

Imagine going to a banquet where all your favorite foods are available in unlimited quantities. You go from table to table, sampling this smorgasbord of culinary delights. Meats and sides, appetizers and desserts fill you up beyond your capacity to eat. You are happy. You are satiated. You are stuffed . . . Wait several hours and what happens? You are hungry! A full-course meal can satiate you for a little while, but after a while it needs to be reinforced. The same is true when it comes to holiness.

Rabbi Eliezer Shach observed that spiritual inspiration has a very limited shelf life. The fact that one has gone through a Yom Kippur, with all of its holiness, does not mean that he will remain at that level for very long. Human nature does not allow us to maintain a spiritual high without continued encouragement.

Even after watching the High Priest exit the Holy of Holies, we need to be reminded to avoid engaging in the lowest, basest, most degenerate behavior. A person should never fool himself into thinking that he is immune from the tendency to sin. He constantly needs reinforcement.

Rabbi Shach points out that the Torah is telling us to avoid ALL aspects of the Egyptian approach to life. G-d devastated Egypt with the Ten Plagues. The Pharaoh repeatedly repented and promised to release the Hebrews. As soon as each Plague was gone, so was the Pharaoh’s contrition. So much for long-term inspiration!

[For a contemporary comparison: In 1991, the U.S.-led coalition “convinced” Saddam Hussein that it was time to stop persecuting people. He learned his lesson, right?]

Some of us can last longer than others without food or sleep. Some of us can go under water and hold our breaths for a mere ten or fifteen seconds. Others can stay under water for a minute or two, or longer! But eventually, we all need to come up for air. Spirituality, says Rabbi Shach, is no different. We all need to constantly recharge our batteries.

If you will listen to My Commandments that I am commanding you today… (Deuteronomy, 11:13). The emphasis of the word “today” is to teach us that every day we should accept our responsibilities anew. Never assume that just because I learned yesterday that I need to follow the Torah, that I don’t need to be reminded today.

The Torah is read every Saturday, morning and afternoon. It is also read Monday and Thursday mornings. Moses wanted to be sure that we would never go three days without a communal Torah Reading. The Shabbos-Monday-Thursday schedule insures that we never miss our spiritual “shot in the arm.”

People are capable of accomplishing great things. They are also capable of accomplishing terrible things. By constantly renewing our dedication to Torah, we remind ourselves how to tell the difference.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

Some years the two Torah Portions of Acharei Mos and Kedoshim are read together, and some years they are read on two separate Sabbaths.  For your convenience, here are links to both Portions:

Links to Acharei Mos:

“Our Man in the Holy-of-Holies” (2011)

The High Priest had a daunting task.

Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the High Priest was required to enter the Holy-of-Holies…. According to Tradition, if his thoughts were not totally pure during his visit to the Holy of Holies, he would be struck down on the spot, and would have to be removed via a rope that was attached to his leg…It must have been a very lonely time for the High Priest…

One day, each one of us will have to take our leave from this world…

We will be ushered into the Holy-of-Holies.  We will, after a lifetime of hopefully doing the right thing, be called upon to meet our Maker.  On that final Day of Judgment, we will enter G-d’s Presence, and we will be very much alone…There will be no Kohain to bring incense and sin offerings on our behalf.  It will just be us, G-d, and our deeds…

When we go before G-d to stand in judgment, each one of us goes, all alone, as his own High Priest.  AND THERE IS NO ROPE!…

Read more.

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“From the Summit to the Gutter” (2003)

… Does the Torah really have to address such behavior on Yom Kippur? We are fasting. We are depriving ourselves of creature comforts and spending the day immersed in thoughts of holiness and devotion. We have confessed our transgressions of the past year and promised to avoid the pitfalls of sin in the coming year. We have witnessed the purity of the High Priest coming out of the Holy of Holies. We are on a spiritual high. Is this the time to talk about resisting X-rated temptations??!!…

Read more.

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“Cardiac Judaism” (2002)

… The Torah describes in great detail the very busy schedule of the Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, on Yom Kippur… By the end of the day, the High Priest succeeded in achieving forgiveness for the sins of his People.

What a system!  You can sin with impunity!  Do whatever your heart desires!  The Torah is telling us that once the Kohain performs the requisite ceremonies on Yom Kippur, all is forgiven!  … Is this what Judaism is all about?!  Do whatever you want, just make sure the High Priest gets you forgiven for it on Yom Kippur?! …

Read more.

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Links to Kedoshim:

“How to be Holy” (2011)

1) Be  Normal…   2) …But  Not  TOO Normal …

Read more.

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“Honor Thy Father’s General” (2010)

… Michael embraced the religious values of his mother.  However, the court had granted ample visitation with his Dad, who was antagonistic toward his ex-wife’s Judaism.  Leslie argued that Mark’s hostility toward religion was detrimental to Michael’s well being, but the court would not get involved.

Mark insisted that Michael come with him in the car on Saturday.  …Leslie was in a quandary.  Should she tell Michael to fight his father?  If Michael refuses to ride on Saturday, his father will drag him, kicking and screaming, into the car.  Should she tell him to ride in the car with his father?  If she would tell Michael to ride on Saturday in his father’s car, she would undermine the very Judaism that she was trying to teach him!  What should she do?

What she did was turn to Rabbi Shimon Schwab, of Blessed Memory… Rabbi Schwab came up with an insightful solution to this problem…

Read more.

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“A Torah Crash Course” (2006)

A Torah lifestyle is very complex.  We are required to fulfill 613 Biblical Commandments.  Then there are rabbinic injunctions, and countless customs that have developed over the centuries.  It is impossible for one person to fathom it all.

The Talmud (Shabbos, 31a) tells us about one person who tried.

“Shammai,” called out the Gentile to the famous rabbi, “I will convert to Judaism if you will teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.”

Shammai, great scholar and righteous man that he was, was not a man who was known for tolerating mockery.  He threw the guy out.  The questioner decided to try to bring his challenge to Hillel instead…

Read more.

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“Exodus from Belarus” (2005)

In 1904, an 18-year old boy from Postavy, a Russian/Polish/Lithuanian town in what is now Belarus, got on a boat and went to America.  He married, settled in Connecticut, and went into the cattle and chicken farming business.  By the time the Second World War began, his family was well-settled in its pursuit of the American Dream.  His family never experienced the Holocaust.

That farmer raised a family of nine children.  One of his sons had four children.   I am one of those children.

That farmer’s name was Rachmiel Tzeplyevitch (Zeplowitz at Ellis Island; Seplowitz in Connecticut).  I, Yerachmiel Seplowitz, am his grandson…

Read more.

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“Hanging Out on the Corner” (2003)

As the story goes, a secular Jew got on a subway in New York City.  This fellow, who had come to America from Poland, shuddered when he found himself face to face with two VERY Jewish looking fellows with long beards and big black hats…

He was repulsed.  He could barely hold back the venom in his voice.  “What’s the matter with you Chassidim?” he demanded in his still-Yiddish-accented English.  “Why must you call attention to yourselves in front of the Goyim?  This is America, not Poland!  I’m embarrassed to be seen with you!”

The two “Chassidim” looked at each other and then at him with confusion.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said one of them.  “What’s a ‘Goyim?’  We’re not from Poland.  We’re from Pennsylvania Dutch Country.  We’re Amish.”…

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2012 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on April 25, 2003 at 10:09 am  Leave a Comment  

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