The Sanctity Of Elemental Relationships

The juxtaposition of laws about the high priest on Yom Kippur, forbidden sexual relationships and laws about blood teach the sanctity of basic parts of life.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30

This week’s Torah portion, called Achrei Mot — “After the Death of” — begins by telling us that “God spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near before God and died.”

The portion then goes on to describe the rather long and complicated ritual that is meant to take place in the Temple every Yom Kippur — the sacrifices, fasting, and prayers, the scapegoat, and, as a climax to the day, the offering, by the High Priest, of the incense in the Holy Of Holies, directly in front of the Holy Ark, in the intimate presence of God.

The reference to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, which we discussed a couple of portions ago, in Parshat Shemini, seems to be introduced here in order to give added weight and authority to the extreme sensitivity concerning the high priest entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

Dangerous Interaction

This, the Torah tells us, is an extremely dangerous interaction — “Speak to Aaron your brother that he should not come at any time to the Holy [of Holies]…so that he does not die. Only in this way [by carefully following the ritual of Yom Kippur] may Aaron come into the Holy [of Holies]…” Only once that ritual has been done according to all its details, on this one day of the year, may the High Priest enter the Holy of Holies, and experience the intimate, immediate presence of God.

After the Yom Kippur ritual is detailed, the portion goes on to prohibit the offering of sacrifices anywhere but in the Temple; this act is seen as one of disloyalty, and is termed an act of “whoring,” terrible infidelity to God and His Temple. After this, the Torah moves along the following path:

  • Do not offer sacrifices outside of the Temple.
  • If you sacrifice or slaughter an animal, its blood must either be offered ritually on the altar, or, if it is not a sacrifice, the blood must be covered by dirt.
  • In no circumstances is blood to be eaten.
  • The portion then concludes with a long list of prohibitions against certain sexual relations — incest, adultery, and others.portion

On Yom Kippur, in the morning, the custom is to read the first part of the portion, that which describes the ritual of the day. Interestingly, the custom on Yom Kippur is to also read, at Mincha, the afternoon prayer, the end of the portion, the part detailing forbidden sexual relations. Although the first custom makes obvious sense, what lies behind the practice of reading, on Yom Kippur, about the forbidden relationships? Moreover, how is the first part of the portion connected with the end of it?

I think it is important to note that the first and last sections are connected by more than the fact that we read them both on Yom Kippur: The opening section, detailing the Yom Kippur ritual, and, specifically the climactic moment of the high priest entering the Holy of Holies, uses words denoting coming near and entering.

First, we are reminded of how Nadav and Avihu died “b’korvatam lifnay hashem” — “when they came near before God.” We are then told how Aaron may enter the sanctuary — “Bezot yavo” — “with this he may enter.” The same word that was used regarding Nadav and Avihu’s coming near God is used over and over in regards to the sacrifices which must be brought on that day — “V’hikriv Aharon” — “and Aaron shall bring near” (i.e. offer, sacrifice).

Forbidden Relationships

So, too, in the section at the end of the Torah portion, detailing the forbidden relationships, we see the same key words. The section opens with the following words — “Every man should not come near (“lo tikrevu“) to their own flesh [close relatives] to reveal their nakedness.” The same root “karov,” to be near, is used to describe what happens on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies, and also to describe the relationships — the “coming near” — which the Torah forbids.

This connection between the ritual of Yom Kippur and the forbidden unions communicates to us a remarkable insight about the nature of intimate relationships. The Torah is clearly paralleling the intimacy one achieves with God in the Holy of Holies with intimate sexual relations. Just as the one must not be promiscuous, casual (“Speak to Aaron your brother that he should not come AT ANY TIME to the Holy [of Holies]…so that he doesn’t die.”), so too, our sexual relationships must not be that way.

The coming near to, the entering of, the Holy of Holies, God’s presence, described in the first section as an act which demands sanctification, ritual, and loyalty (remember the warning afterwards not to go “whoring” after other Gods by making offerings outside the Temple — outside the relationship) is paralleled by a similar view of sexuality. Our intimate relationships must also be sanctified, must be seen as something to be entered into with appropriate ritual, and to the exclusion of other unions.

It is, I think, startling to realize that the Torah, by equating these two things, is saying something radical about the ultimate importance of our intimate personal relationships. Just as our relationship with God is not to be taken lightly, and is of great, even cosmic importance — is, in fact, life-threatening in its significance — so, too, must we understand the nature of our intimate relationships.

The Torah sees human sexuality as something that closely parallels our relationship with God. Just as Eve, upon the birth of her first son, Cain, gave him his name because, as she said “Caniti ish et hashem” — “I have gotten a man, like (or with) God,” we, too, are meant to see the procreative act as somehow divine, as linking us with God. Hence the concern, on the part of the Torah, that we approach that act, and the relationship pertaining to that act, with the same care, commitment, seriousness and sense of sanctity with which we approach our intimate moments with God.

This is paralleled with the prohibitions against spilling animal blood without the attendant ritual of burying it, and against eating blood, which function as the bridge between the opening and closing sections of the parsha. Blood, the life force, the symbol of life itself, must be related to with dignity, respect, and care, just as our intimate relationship with God, and our intimate human relationships must be.

The Torah, in these three sections, is delineating for us an attitude, a world view, that relates to the most basic and powerful acts in our lives with sanctity, respect, attention, and spirituality. To relate to these elemental relationships and experiences in a casual, off-handed fashion would, in effect, define our lives themselves as casual, and of little significance.

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multidenominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

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