Parashat Ahare Mot

The Law of the Farm

This portion teaches us that there are no easy fixes to the complex problems that face our social systems.

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A student approaches me, red in the face. "Please explain this," he says. I look at his report card. I've given him a low grade for class participation. Over the course of the semester, he has repeatedly scoffed at the comments of classmates. This has brought tension and distrust to the class. When I remind him of this, his face falls. "You're right," he says. "What if I apologize and never do it again?"

"Sorry," I say. "This mistake has no undo."

On Forgiveness

We often think that we can cut corners, avoid the costs of our actions, ignore cause and effect, and come out ahead. But we are mistaken, and Parashat Ahare Mot comes to remind us of the way things really work.

american jewish world serviceThe parashah begins by describing the priestly Yom Kippur atonement service. We learn here that God has incorporated atonement--the mercy that leads to Divine forgiveness--into the fabric of creation. But the parashah then takes a dramatic turn as it delineates a series of laws and specifies the consequences of failing to follow them: the aberrant individual is cut off from his people (Leviticus 18:29) and the guilty nation is spewed out from the land (Leviticus 18:27). 

The parashah makes a distinction between the guilt for humanity's mistakes, which may be absolved, and the consequences of those mistakes, for which there is no undo. This distinction is crucial.

No Pleading to the Powers That Be

Steven Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes that natural laws determine processes and outcomes in the natural world. For example, farm workers understand that "ripping up the soil, throwing in the seeds, watering and cultivating overnight" will not provide them with "a bountiful harvest overnight."

With acts of labor in the natural world, we know that the process must be done in the correct order, at the right time. Yet in social systems, we somehow think that fast fixes and clever problem-solving can undo the effects of neglect, disrespect, and betrayal. 

A deep principle operates here, deeper than sin and punishment, one that we must learn and re-learn, year after year. Namely, even as we embrace the tremendous mercy of atonement, we must simultaneously bear in mind the opposite principle: the Law of the Farm. No matter our nation or identity, no matter our class or race, no last-minute desperate action, no pleading to the powers above can contain the effects of our actions. 

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.