No guarantee in matters of desire: Acharei Mot

There is no guarantee or guardian for human beings when it comes to matters of desire and physical sexuality - which is the reason for detailed Torah strictures on the issue.

Rabbi Berel Wein, | updated: 15:51

Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein
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This Torah reading is inextricably connected to the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. The first half of the reading comprises the very same Torah reading that is read on the morning of Yom Kippur, while the latter part of this reading is read publicly during the afternoon service of that day. The first part deals with the ritual and service of the high priest in the holy Temple on Yom Kippur. The second part deals with those physical relationships between humans that are regulated and, in many cases, considered forbidden by the Torah.

While it is quite understandable why the first part of this  Torah reading dealing with the service of the high priest of the Temple on Yom Kippur fits with this theme of Yom Kippur itself, it is somewhat puzzling as to why the second part of this Torah reading, dealing essentially with physical and sexual immorality, should be the theme of the afternoon services on Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur represents to us the ability to disassociate ourselves from bodily wants and needs and to transcend to be in the company of angels, so to speak. Merely reading about the sins mentioned in the context of this second part of the Torah portion of this week already raises images within our subconscious mind that apparently are not fitting for the holiness of the day of Yom Kippur. Yet the rabbis of Israel who were the wisest judges of human nature and understood the human condition fully, chose that this portion should specifically be read and emphasized on the afternoon of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

There are many explanations for the issue that I have raised in the previous paragraph. But one that seems to be most relevant in our time, when there is no longer any definition present for sexual immorality or deviance, is that the Torah does not want to allow ourselves to be fooled by the holiness of the day and by our abstinence from the usual bodily needs of everyday life. Judaism teaches that just as human beings can reach the highest forms of holiness, selflessness and piety, so too can these very same human beings sink to levels of evil, selfishness and incestuous depravity.

The Talmud warns us that there is no guarantee or guardian for human beings when it comes to matters of desire and physical sexuality. No one is above it and only those who think that they are somehow immune to it are the ones who are most vulnerable.

On Yom Kippur, when we are at our holiest, we are also reminded how low and evil we can be if we do not guard ourselves. To ignore our weaknesses is to constantly live in peril of irreparable damage to ourselves and to others.

Even a cursory review of daily events in our time will show us how easily even great and noble people can create the greatest harm to themselves simply because they believed that it could not happen to them. The Torah is the book of realism, the book of humanity.  That is how it is to be read, studied and understood.


 





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