Judaism: Parshat Achrei Mot: All on Your Own
ALL ON YOUR OWN
When the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, no-one else could be there with him (Lev. 16:17).
Human beings are a social race: they know how true are the words of the story of Creation, “It is not good for a person to be alone” (Gen.2:18). Adam needed Eve; human beings need each other. But it doesn't always happen, or help.
Sometimes there is nothing another person can do for you, however much they love you. Franz Rosenzweig points out that at crucial moments everyone is alone. Death is the ultimate example. You can be surrounded by others at that moment. They can have their arms around you and their hand in yours, their lips can kiss you, but they can only be observers: the dying is you alone.
The high priest on Yom Kippur was not in such a macabre situation, but his spiritual experience in the Holy of Holies was unique to him.
In a metaphorical way, we all have our moments when decisions have to be made on our own. President Truman was reminded by a saying displayed in his office, “The buck stops here”. May God give us wisdom at these moments.
THE EGYPTIAN & CANAANITE EXAMPLE
A stern warning: “Don’t copy the ways of the Egyptians or Canaanites” (Lev. 18:3-4). What’s wrong with the Egyptians? What’s wrong with the Canaanites?
The answer is deduced from the words which follow: “Perform My judgments, observe My statutes”. God’s ways are just and ethical. Not so the Egyptians and Canaanites.
It’s not that Egypt and Canaan did not have attractive features. The Egyptians in particular had a high standard of civilisation.
But the way to assess whether to emulate their example has nothing to do with their material civilisation but depends on whether they were governed by judgments and statutes that stood for the rights and dignity of all citizens, not favouring the rich or the mighty, not cowering before demagogues who had a loud voice, not being susceptible to flattery or grandiloquent promises.
PASSOVER & THE PARASHAH
An interesting link between the festival and the weekly reading is the verse in chapter 18, “You shall not do according to the deeds of the land of Egypt where you dwelt” (Lev. 18:3).
If all that connected the two was the word “Egypt” this could be dismissed as mere coincidence. But on a deeper level the verse reminds us that the Egyptians oppressed minority groups and this is an example which should be rejected.
Rashi says the ways of Egypt were morally corrupt, not just in the way they treated minorities. He also quotes a rabbinic source that says that the Egyptians followed unacceptable social customs like frequenting theatres and gladiatorial fights. Commentators point out that these were Roman practices, but the cruelty and lack of modesty they entailed certainly come under the heading of moral corruption.
Over and above these examples, a number of sources say that the Egyptians blurred the distinction between males and females: males acted in feminine ways and vice-versa., which warns us not to blur the boundaries or to pretend to be what you are not and cannot be.
Why is the verse so stern in its warning to the people of Israel? Because Egypt was the first nation with whom the Israelites as a group had any dealings, and the Egyptians must not be seen as a role model worthy of emulation.