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Parashat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:27)

“My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws:
I, the Lord am your God.” (Leviticus 18:4)

Parashat Acharei Mot begins with a lengthy description of the Yom Kippur ritual for purifying the mishkan (Tabernacle) and ends with a list of forbidden sexual relationships. The concept of k’dusha, or sanctity, connects these two disparate topics. In between, it offers a challenge which becomes a foundation for Jewish law: “You shall keep my laws and my rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 18:5)

The Talmud cites this verse as justification for waiving the Torah’s prohibitions in order to save a life because the Torah is meant to support life, not death (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 85b; only three commandments cannot be overturned to save a life: idolatry, forbidden sexual relationships, and murder). Nachmanides (1194 – 1270; 13th century Spanish commentator) says this verse refers primarily to the commandments governing social interaction (as opposed to those describing our obligations to God), teaching guidelines and boundaries are necessary if society is to function and flourish.

The Kotzker Rebbe (Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 1787–1859; a Hasidic rabbi and leader) looks at the verse from the opposite angle, though. He says the question is not what can mitzvot (commandments) do for you, it’s what can you do for mitzvot? (Who knew JFK was a Kotzker chasid (disciple))? That is, how can you perform mitzvot with zest and enthusiasm to bring life to them? The Kotzker Rebbe understands the meaning we take from an act often relies upon the meaning we put into it. Substitute “Jewish life” for mitzvah and Acharei Mot asks what does being Jewish mean to you and how do you act upon that meaning?

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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