God Orders a Day of Atonement and Specifies the Rules of Holiness
a.k.a. Parashat Acharei (Leviticus 16: 1 – 18: 30)
God spoke to Moses after Aarons’ two sons had died when drawing close to the Divine
Presence. God told Aaron, through Moses, not to enter the holy place behind the veil indiscriminately, but to
prepare for such a visitation in a special way.
Aaron had to bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt
offering. He had to wear linen clothes, having first bathed. He
also had to procure from the people two male goats for a sin offering. Aaron had to place the goats at the
door of the Tent of Meeting. He would then cast lots to determine which goat would be offered to God as a sin
offering, and which would be sent into the wilderness for Azazel.
Aaron had to sacrifice the bull as a sin offering for himself and his household. He
also had to take two handfuls of sweet incense, and go behind the veil. He had to place the incense on the
fire so that a cloud of incense covered the mercy seat. Blood from the bull had to be sprinkled on the mercy
seat seven times with his finger. Then Aaron had to kill the goat designated for the sin offering and bring
its blood into the sacred area and sprinkle it upon the mercy seat. In this way atonement would be made for
the sins of the people.
No other person could be inside the tent of meeting when Aaron entered to make
atonement for himself, his household and all the people of Israel. After this, Aaron had to go out to the
altar set before the Lord and put blood of the bull and blood of the goat on the horns of the
And it would forever be a law that on the 10th day of the seventh month the
people would do no work and would make atonement for their sins and be cleansed before the Lord. This was the
The Priestly Code being complete, God then dictated the Holiness
Firstly, all sacrifices had to be made at the entrance of the Tent of
Furthermore, any Israelite or person living among the people who ate blood would be
rejected by God and be cut off from His people. Any animal or bird to be eaten had to have its precious
life-blood drained from it first.
Anyone who ate anything dead or torn by wild animals would have to wash their clothes
and bathe in water, and would be considered unclean until the evening.
Then God turned to matters of sex.
No man could have sexual relations with his mother, sister, stepsister, sister-in-law,
daughter-in-law, aunt, granddaughter or any close relative. It was forbidden to have sexual relations with
both a woman and her daughter. It was also forbidden to approach a woman for sex during her monthly period.
Sex with a neighbor’s wife was also prohibited.
It was forbidden that children should be given as a sacrifice to the god
It was considered an abomination for a man to have sex with another
No man or woman was permitted to have sexual relations with an
These laws were given to divide Israel from the other nations God had conquered on
Israel’s behalf. The land itself, being defiled by these people, spewed them out. If Israel acted in similar
ways, the land would reject them too. Any child of Israel who did any of the above things had to be
excommunicated from the congregation of the people.
Commentary on the 29th parsha (portion of the Torah). The Torah consists of the five books of
Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
MS: I trust you will be
totally respectful about Yom Kippur, the Highest Holy Day and a day dedicated to
SAS: Methuselah, I am too
good a Jew to mock the intentions and actions of those who set the day aside for atonement and
MS: You don’t do these
SAS: In my own way I do. I
understand that as a community, and as citizens of the world, we Jews are responsible for our actions. It is
salutary to reflect on our actions and the harm we have done throughout the year, and it is important that we
enter of state of symbolic purification so that we are ready to start a new year with a resolve to do good
and not repeat our mistakes. The therapeutic benefits are no doubt immense.
MS: We are not talking
symbolically. We fast, we abstain from work and sexual relations, and we enter into a profound sense of
closeness with God. In this state of contrition and holy devotion, we receive the insights and strength we
need to make a ritual atonement for our sins and collectively atone for our wrongdoings in the presence of
one another. Do you fast, go to shul and make such atonement? As you are a non-believer, I assume you do not.
I therefore question whether you are a Jew at all.
SAS: Some years I do fast, to
show my solidarity with the community. I also do it to receive the physical and psychological benefits that
periodic abstinence can bring. As a secular man, I have no illusions about drawing close to God and seeking
any kind of justification in his sight. That’s all hogwash. As a moral man, however, I see the benefits of
reflecting earnestly on my actions and deciding to do better in the future.
MS: So the secular Jew is
simply a good moralist with a firm commitment to do right by his fellow Jews?
SAS: Well that is part of who
he is. And, also, he shows a commitment to do right by his fellows, be they Jewish or not. He might also be
someone with a strong sense of Jewish history, culture, identity and loyalty.
MS: But that loyalty must be
based first and foremost on a loyalty to God!
SAS: Well, there we
MS: I hope we do not differ
on God’s precepts for holiness. You agree that eating blood is wrong?
SAS: Yes, I personally don’t
eat blood for health reasons, but I don’t have a problem with those who, in this day and age, do. I agree
it’s extremely unhygienic to eat rotting carcasses. No prizes for God there – we found these things out, no
doubt, by making mistakes and then protecting others in the community from making
MS: I cannot imagine that you
would question the decree about sleeping with a relative.
SAS: Quite right – I don’t.
But not because of anything said by a fictional creation. There are good physiological and social reasons why
close relatives shouldn’t sleep together. On the social front, it causes huge jealousies and awkwardness. On
the medical front it causes problems with their offspring.
MS: Yes, things God knew and
warned us about.
SAS: No, things we figured
out for ourselves and then scared people about by saying that God punished such
MS: And, of course, you agree
that a man shouldn’t sleep with another man?
SAS: Actually, no, because
that’s always been pretty common, just frowned upon in different historical periods and different societies.
I know it’s still disapproved of in many quarters.
MS: What? Men sleep with men!
Jewish men do not do this.
SAS: Well, for your
information, there are Jewish homosexuals. It has been scientifically shown that one in 10 people are
MS: Gay? One in10? What
horrible times these must be!
SAS: Kinder times, my friend.
Do you know how much suffering you caused for such men by writing that they are an abomination to God? We
have discovered, my friend, that what is normal and natural for the vast majority of the population isn’t
normal, desirable or natural for a consistent minority of people. Instead of persecuting and punishing them
for their biological differences, they have the legal right to live together with others like them. Your God
didn’t understand the biological facts about homosexuality because he doesn’t exist – this is just the voice
of a particular society writ large! Your elders didn’t like the idea. But I ask you to think carefully about
David and Jonathan, in your own scriptures.
MS: Your blasphemies are only
marginally more upsetting than the things you are telling me. God will punish us all for the abomination of
men sleeping with men!
SAS: Don’t forget women
sleeping with women! But then, of course, your laws are all written from the male perspectives – they’re all
about things men mustn’t do. I suppose it was assumed that
women, being chattels, wouldn’t take the initiative in any such matter anyway. Or perhaps it was simply
unimportant what they did. The Torah is written by an Almighty
Man for the benefit of the men on his earthly team. Women were just along for their
MS: I have had enough. We are
talking about matters of extreme holiness and you insult God and his laws!
SAS: Not all of them! For
example, I have no qualms about the law prohibiting sex with animals. It seems superfluous, though. We were
so busy killing them for righteous purposes that it seems absurd to think anyone would want to be intimate
MS: This has gone too
SAS: As for the land vomiting
up people who defiled it – well, that’s simply a convenient excuse for our plundering the land and its
people. Without a divine justification, how could we ever have done such things?
MS: Answer your own repellent
and futile questions. I am off to atone for my sins.
SAS: Considering what you’ve
written, you have much for which to atone!
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
Nationalism and Zionism
In the mid-19th century, Europe saw the rise of ethnically based nationalism. This
could be seen in the rise of unification movements all over Western and Central Europe, as people started to
think of themselves as members of nations, rather than united simply on the basis of religion, or geography.
The Jews in Europe were vulnerable to these movements. Although anti-Semitism had a history which long
pre-dated European nationalism, once ethnic nationalism gained momentum, the Jews were yet again targeted,
and excluded as a danger to the purity of the European nation states. This led to further outbreaks of
Many Jews in Western and Central Europe protected
themselves by trying to assimilate even further in European culture, and becoming secularized. A small group
of European Jews, believing that assimilation would have no effect on the general attitude in Europe towards
Jewish people, developed the beginnings of a movement that would be called Zionism. Their position was that
Jews would always be outsiders in Europe because they did not have their own state. If the Jews had their own state, they argued, there would no longer be
anti-Semitism. The idea was to create a nation state outside of Europe for Jewish people. The early Zionist
thinkers did not care very much about Jewish religious practices and rituals. Rather, they were concerned
about their fellow Jews as a nation. The basic idea was to establish a state for
However, many more European Jews lived in Eastern
Europe’s Pale of Settlement. They had not experienced the
Enlightenment that was such a powerful force in Central and Western Europe. These Jews had lived for
centuries in semi-autonomous Jewish municipal structures provided for by wealthier Jews. The Rabbis ran all
aspects of life according to the Jewish laws and customs they had inherited. Once the changes of emancipation
in other parts of Europe reached the ears of some of these Jewish people, they too wished to free themselves
form the restrictive lives they had been living.
In 1825 Tsar Nicholas I, as part of his Russification campaign, instituted new and oppressive rules against Jews.
He forced underage Jewish boys into the army, closed down the trades in which Jews were able to work and
persecuted the Jews in their small communities. Tens of thousands of Jews migrated to the
When Tsar Alexander II began his rule in 1855 he put
an end to drafting of underage Jews and allowed Jews to receive some education and enter a number of
professions previously forbidden to them. As a result, a new class of Enlightenment Jews grew up in the
cities of Eastern Europe, particularly Odessa. They too saw themselves as having emerged from the Dark Ages.
After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, his successor Tsar Alexander III enacted new and brutal
policies against Jews in the countryside and many more fled to the cities to escape pogroms and persecution.
Many of these Jews, who were poor and displaced, joined movements bent on overthrowing the
Because of the serious anti-Semitic persecution
which paralyzed them economically, and a despair about their future, as many as 2.5 million Jews left the
Russian Empire between 1881 and 1914, about 2 million of them heading for the
For many of the Jews remaining in Eastern Europe,
the renewed oppression became a spur to finding different ways to liberate themselves. They realized that as
long as the Empire was in place, enlightenment among the gentiles in the Russian Empire would be of no
benefit to them as Jews.
Some of these Jewish people believed that the entire
system needed to be overthrown, and joined the burgeoning revolutionary socialist and communist movements.
Many others committed themselves to the Bund, a society that aimed to establish the rebirth of the Yiddish
language and culture in Russia itself.
However, an increasing number of Jews started to
take seriously the newly revived idea (stretching back to biblical times) of building a nation-state in
Palestine. Unlike the Zionism arising in Western and Central Europe, the Zionism emanating from Eastern
Europe was colored by the socialist and communist ideology that had grown up in response to Tsarism. Their
Zionism emerged because of their frustration with being ruled by the rich and the rabbinate, as well as by
This kind of Zionism was deeply upsetting to devout
Eastern European Jews who believed that the return of Jews to the Promised Land could only follow the return
of the Messiah. For many of these people, the transformation of Judaism from a set of religious and cultural
practices to a set of secular nationalist ideals, devoid of religious faith, was deeply challenging and they
reacted with resistance and animosity. However, the tide of nationalism which had swept Europe had swept up
the Jews as well – in their case, their nationalism directed them outside of Europe and cut them adrift from
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
CHAYA: I didn’t realize that
Zionism sprang from so many different sources. I thought the early Zionists all knew one another and were in
agreement on common goals.
DAD: Well, no, as you can
see, some Jews became Zionists because they were caught up in nationalist passions, and excluded from the
nationalism of the people among whom they lived. Others realized there was no place for them in Europe, or
anywhere in the world, unless they had their own nation state. Yet others were caught up in idealistic
socialist movements. Many were secularists and some were still deeply involved in their
BEN: It seems strange then that all of this came together in one strong
DAD: Make no mistake, these
different tensions are still present in Zionism today. Not only that, but there are some ultra-Orthodox Jews
who live in Israel yet refuse to recognize the state. They will not pay taxes or serve in the
DAD: Because they take very
seriously the belief that it is only after the coming of the Messiah that the Jews will return to
BEN: We are a very book-bound
people, aren’t we? If it is written in a holy book somewhere, Jews tend to take it very seriously. We seem to
have undue respect for the written word.
DAD: Well, the Zionists in
general tried to throw off that yoke. Between the nationalists, the socialists, the secularists and the
humanists, the Jews of Europe emerged from centuries of government by the holy books and their interpreters,
the rabbis, who were schooled in those traditions.
CHAYA: But there are many
Jews who still live that way and want to be guided by the rabbis and their teaching.
BEN: And plenty others who
just want to live normal lives without being persecuted for who they are. And I think it is because of the
achievements of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel that this is
CHAYA: But to think that
there were a whole bunch of Jews spread out in Europe a hundred and twenty years ago, brewing a new
philosophy of peoplehood and nationhood on the basis of a shared history and culture, and today we have a
state that has been a fact for 60 years! That’s astonishing! How could it have
DAD: As you know, and as
we’ll see, it didn’t just happen. Millions of lives were lost in Europe and thousands in the Middle East
during that time and all of these lives too are a part of the story of how the State of Israel came into
being and grew into what it is today.
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· For a long, happy life, breathe through your nose and keep your mouth
· I have seen everything under the sun and, look, all is vanity and a chasing after the
· If prayer did any good, they’d hire men to pray.
· A heavy rain chases you into the house; a mean wife chases you out.
· If you can’t give money, at least give a sympathetic sigh.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Ruth Bader Ginsberg (1933 - )
Ruth Bader Ginsberg is an Associate Justice on the
US Supreme Court. She is the first Jewish woman to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, and the
second woman to be so appointed. Prior to this appointment she served as a lawyer for the National
Organization for Women (NOW) and she also worked for the American Civil Liberties Union. She held
professorships at Rutgers University and the Columbia Law School, and also served as a federal judge. She was
appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton. Ginsberg is perceived to be a liberal
on a body generally known for its conservatism. She, however, views her own attitude to the law as measured
Natan Sharansky (1948 - )
Natan Sharansky, born Anatoly Shcharansky, is a former Soviet dissident who is today
president of Beit Hatefutsot, the Jewish diaspora museum. In March 1977 the applied mathematics graduate and
“Refusenik” was arrested and later convicted on charges of treason and spying for the USA and sent into
forced labour for 13 years. In 1986 he came to the West as part of a prisoner exchange, and settled in Israel
under the adopted name of Natan. In 1988 he was elected president of the Zionist Forum. He went on to serve
as Minister of Industry and Trade, Interior Minister, Minister of Housing and Construction and Deputy Prime
Minister of Israel. He resigned from the Knesset in late 2006. He is a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center where he is head of
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.