For the Diaspora: Parshat Acharei Mot, a lesson in contrasts

Why Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim appears in the Torah immediately after Parshat Metzora.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Editor's note: This year the eighth day of Passover, kept only in the Diaspora, fell on the Sabbath, so while Jews in Israel read Parshat Acharei Mot, the Sabbath Torah portion, Jews in the Diaspora were still celebrating  Passover and read the Passover holiday reading. The result is that Jews outside Israel are reading Acharei Mot this week, but Jews in Israel are up to the next portion, Parashat Kedoshim. The Jewish people will be literally "on the same page" again once a double parsha reading in the Diaspora balanced by the reading of one parasha in Israel on the same Sabbath lets the Diaspora communities catch up. Until then, Arutz Sheva will bring Divrei Torah on both Torah portions.

Upon first glance, Parshat Acharei Mot appears to be extremely disjointed, for the first three aliyot of the parshah describe Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim, the spectacular Yom Kippur Service in the Temple, while the rest of the parshah addresses aveirot (sins) of desecration, such as sacrificing sanctified animals in unholy locations rather than in the Beit Ha-Mikdash, consuming blood, illicit relations and Molech (child sacrifice) service. (The Ramban explains that consuming blood is a desecration insomuch as blood represents the soul, which is of God and which should be used in His service, rather than consumed by Man.)  

Whereas the parshah commences with a portrayal of Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim, which is the apex of holiness, it concludes with that which is decidedly quite unholy and even grotesque. How do the first and latter sections of the parshah fit together?

This question can be answered by posing another question: Why is Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim featured in our parshah at all? One would expect it rather to appear in Parshat Emor or in Parshat Pinchas, where the various sacrifices of the Moadim (Festivals) are presented. Why does Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim instead appear in the middle of Sefer Vayikra, disconnected from the presentation of all other sacrifices in Sefer Vayikra?

The answer is that Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim is not only a sacrificial regimen. Rather, it represents the ultimate purification of Man, as he draws close to God on Yom Kippur and is cleansed and renewed. Since the Torah just described in Parsha Metzora the halakhic cleansing and renewal of people with various contaminations, the Torah now proceeds to address large-scale spiritual cleansing and purification. This is why Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim appears in the Torah precisely now, immediately after Parshat Metzora.

Taking this message forward, Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim represents Man at his best, approaching the level of malachim (angels) and climbing to connect with God in ultimate sanctity. At the same time, Man is required to actively appreciate his holy ascent and his rising above the mundane and elevating himself toward a unique encounter with the Divine; such an appreciation can only be obtained by Man realizing his true vulnerability and the extent to which he can descend and debase himself. Only with an appreciation of his potential for spiritual degradation and his converse ability to achieve spiritual greatness is Man’s growth truly meaningful and impactful.

This is the message of the unusual structure of Parshat Acharei Mot, as the Torah instructs us to contrast the ascent of Yom Kippur with the spiritual challenges and failings that appear in the latter part of the parsha, for by vividly considering the misuse and distortion of holiness in the latter part of the parshah can one appreciate and internalize the opportunity for genuine spiritual elevation and striving toward holiness in the earlier part of the parshah.  

The importance of contrast and its contribution to properly appreciating the gifts of spiritual elevation, and of Torah and Mitzvos in general, cannot be underestimated. We find that the prayer recited upon departing from the beit midrash contrasts the lot of one who learns Torah with the lot of one who forsakes Torah study. And in our parshah, the Torah contrasts the amoral practices of the heathens of Canaan and Egypt with the virtuous conduct expected of the Jewish people, Bnei Yisrael.  

As the Mesilat Yesharim (ch. 1) explains, Man can fulfill his potential and elevate himself and his surroundings, or he can debase himself and bring down all around him. Appreciating this crucial contrast as one chooses spiritual ascent is the unifying message of our parshah. May we act upon it and merit to countenance the Shechinah and to bring the entire world under Its wings.