“The Forbidden Relationships Work Both Ways”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In Chapter 18 of this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Acharei Mot, we encounter, in a very forceful manner, the rules and regulations regarding immorality and forbidden sexual relationships.

The Torah sets out clearly (Lev. 18:3), “K’ma’asay Eretz Mitzrayim asher y’shavtem bah, lo ta’asu,” You, the People of Israel, must not perform the practices of the land of Egypt in which you dwelt, or perform the practices of the land of Canaan to which I bring you. Do not follow their traditions. Rather, says G-d (Lev.18:5), “U’shmartem et choo’ko’tai et mishpatai asher yaseh o’tam ha’adam, v’chay ba’hem, ani Hashem,” And you shall observe my decrees and my laws which a person shall carry out and by which he shall live, I am the L-rd. The Torah then proceeds to list many prohibited sexual relationships between relatives and concludes (verse 30), “U’shmartem et mishmartee,” You shall safeguard my charge, “Ani Hashem E-lokaychem,” I am the L-rd your G-d.

As we often point out, the family structure is regarded by Judaism as the basic construct of society and civilization. Judaism cannot emphasize enough the centrality of family life, because all of morality depends upon it. Stronger family life, results in a stronger society, and a more beneficial communal lifestyle.

Imagine if you will, how extremely difficult it was for the Hebrews of old, to share the same lands with many ancient tribes, who, in the name of their religions, zealously practiced all sorts of sexual perversions. In the midst of the satyrs and holy prostitutes who served in the temples, the Jews tried to lead a revolutionary moral life. Clearly the Torah was the radical document in its time, after all, what we today consider to be sexual decadence, was commonly practiced and entirely acceptable among the neighbors and the people with whom the Jews lived. It is not at all surprising, therefore, to learn that, according to Jewish tradition, the Jewish people in Egypt had declined to the 49th level of impurity, and were just one level away from oblivion.

We often look upon the ancients as people who had little or no education, no opportunities to appreciate the finer things in life, and consequently, thoroughly subject to the blandishments of their times and society. On the other hand, we view ourselves as stronger, more sophisticated, more broadly educated, far more in control of our natures than those ancient “primitives.” But, truth be told, the ethical and moral challenges which we face today are as great, perhaps even greater, than those faced by the ancients.

Frankly, it is very difficult to be a Yeshiva boy in Sodom. The impact of our modern day Sodom is constant, relentless and crushing. We, who have lived through the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair in the United States and have seen our vaunted legislators, the American Congress, vote to release to the general public, to even our little children, the most prurient information which was of little or no relevance to anyone, have much reason for concern. We are living in an age where the challenge is perhaps greater than ever. That’s why the admonition in the coming week’s parasha, (Lev.19:2) “K’doshim tee’he’you,” Be Holy, be sacred, is particularly timely, especially as interpreted by the Ramban–be “separate!” We need to separate ourselves from those things which rob us of our holiness.

In light of this, it should be quite clear why this portion of Acharei Mot and the forbidden sexual relationships are read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Obviously on the day of Yom Kippur, when we try to achieve forgiveness and atonement, the sexual trespasses are among the foremost to be emphasized.

It is therefore fascinating that the Midrash suggests that one of the reasons for reading this portion dealing with Arayot, forbidden relationships, on Yom Kippur afternoon is that we the People of Israel hint thereby to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, that He too should not uncover our nakedness, our sinfulness — just as He has commanded us not to uncover our nakedness. We might even go further and say to G-d, “Just as You tell us to be loyal to our loved ones, You must also be loyal to us, and not exchange us for any other people.”

Each portion of the Torah has dramatic and profound meanings, and is filled with the most wonderful insights. For us, it is important to find those meanings that are relevant to us and to our lives. Perhaps there is nothing more meaningful for us during these challenging times than to underscore the need for both human beings, the People of Israel, and G-d Almighty, to be loyal to each other.

May you be blessed.