4th May, Aharei Mot – Sean Laidlaw

Scapegoats, purification offerings, animal welfare, and forbidden relationships – hard to see at first, but the central theme of this parasha is holiness. Holiness in Judaism has a distinct meaning. Although its equivalent in latin – sacer – has a meaning of “restriction through pertaining to the gods”, in hebrew holiness – kadosh – refers to being “set apart”. The things we value the most we usually set apart from everything else. In my year 7 Cheder class, we also feel this deep human impulse to put separate, that which is sacred to us, from the gifted perfume given its own drawer to the cuddly rabbit who lives on a different shelf. As we journey through this week’s parasha, we are confronted with a shift in perspective, a transition from defining the holy as that which is separate to that which is whole, from the exclusive domain of the priesthood to a more universalist mission for the whole people. The parasha covers the laws of Yom Kippur, the way we treat animals, and the way we treat each other, prompting questions we can not leave unanswered. What does it mean to be holy? Is holiness about separation to heights untouched by the ordinary? Does it mean we as a people, are to be the teddy bear put on a shelf out of harm’s way? Or is it something else, something deeply embedded in the fabric of our daily lives peeking out of the ordinary?

Priesthood and YK Ritual
This parsha begins with a long description of what the priesthood must do on Yom Kippur. It describes the sacred rites performed in utter seclusion within the Holy of Holies, a place where only the High Priest, the most separate man, on the most separate day, could enter. So far in the Torah, the concept of holiness was primarily associated with the priesthood and the sacred rituals they performed. In the book of Exodus, we witness the intricate process of constructing the Tabernacle, the portable temple the Israelites would create to have a holy space where the divine presence could dwell among the people. The Torah then dedicates several chapters to describing the elaborate garments of the priests, such as the ephod, breastplate, and turban. The book of Leviticus opens with detailed instructions for the various sacrifices the priests were to offer in the Tabernacle. The burnt offering, grain offering, peace offering, sin offering, and guilt offering were all to be carried out meticulously by the priests. Here, holiness seems to be about separation and transcendence. These garments, purifications, and rites set the priests apart from the rest of the nation. This set them apart from us.

The parsha then jumps from discussing the arcane rituals of the High Priest on Yom Kippur to ethical precepts about the way we treat animals and other people.

Caring for animals
We are commanded not to hunt animals, not to partake in any of torn limbs, and prohibited from any animal sacrifices performed anywhere but the alter of the temple, limiting dramatically the number that could be performed. The Torah does not mince words on the severity of the prohibition of mistreating animals, using the Hebrew term ‘shafakh dam’ “blood-shed” to refer to this taking of life: the term last used to define the punishment for murder in Genesis 9:6 where it states: “Whoever sheds human blood, shall that one’s blood be shed; For in the image of God was humankind made.” Innocent animals, however, have no “redeemer of blood” to avenge them as do humans, so God plays the role of the animal’s “Redeemer.” By prohibiting the consumption of animals with torn limbs and restricting sacrifices to the sacred space of the sanctuary, the law placed a hedge of protection around the most vulnerable creatures. It was a step towards a future where holiness would be found not in the shedding of blood, but in the reverence for the divine spark that animates all beings. As my students put it: “they also, are creations of God and can feel pain”; and God weeps at the suffering of his creations. We treat animals with dignity because we recognize that holiness is not found in the spilling of blood, but in the gentle touch of a hand that lifts up the fallen, and the whispered prayer that mends a broken wing. The law commands with a gentle firmness, guiding hands to respect the divine spark within all creation, binding man to beast in a covenant of shared breath.

Caring for Other People
The parsha continues, now turning its attention to the way we treat other people. Framed after the stark prohibitions against emulating the corrupt customs of Egypt and Canaan, and before the lofty command of the next chapter’s injunction to “be holy, for I your God, am holy.”, lies a tapestry of laws that speak to the sanctity of human relationships, providing a protective boundary around the most vulnerable, emphasising the inherent value and dignity of every individual. Interestingly, these laws are stated just before the commandment to not offer up our children as a sacrifice to the Canaanite god Molech in verse 21. The way we treat others, and the prohibition against sacrificing our own children, are woven together, creating a powerful message about the sanctity of human relationships. How can a parent, cradling the innocence of their child, look their child in the eye and consign to take its new life for the sake of their idol. The worship of Moloch demanded the ultimate betrayal—the sacrifice of one’s own child—but it is tied here in the text with the commandments to respect the consent and dignity of others. For Samson Raphael Hirsh, Molech represents a vision of God as blind fate, a god who does not represent or demand righteousness but wants only obedience. To sacrifice one’s child to Moloch was to surrender to a fate devoid of moral reason, a stark contrast to the Judaic vision of a moral universe underpinned by a divine justice and mercy, achieved through our hands. When we violate the boundaries of our commitments, we not only harm those we love, but we also turn away from the divine command. Not once but twice in succession does this section open with the line “you shall keep my command and my rules, I am the lord your God”. But if explicitly, not about sacrifice, what command is this referring to?

My answer to this, is to reason homiletically, by looking for the next mention of those words “I am the lord your God”. In many instances the text says “I am the lord”, but “I am the lord your God” doesn’t appear again until our Leviticus 19:2 command to: “be holy, for I your God, am holy.”. The mention of being our god, immediately after talking about foreign gods with cruel worship, is telling about what it means to walk in the path of a god who demands righteousness. Hermann Cohen saw in this divine command that we are summoned not to a life of ritual service but to a life of moral action—a pursuit of ethical perfection where every interaction is an opportunity to mirror the divine. Each of those interactions, Levinas would add, put us in an encounter with the ‘Other’, and this is where true ethics begins. To see the face of another is to recognize a call to responsibility that transcends the formalities of law or tradition. In Levinas’s philosophy, the face of the Other commands us to act with compassion and justice.

Symbolism of juxtaposing YK / Ethical Actions
Why then does the Torah in this parasha juxtapose Yom Kippur rituals with ethical living in our treatment of animals and of each other? In this question there is a why, and there is a who.

For the why, I asked my class, and they didn’t see this juxtaposition as a contradiction, remembering the key message from our lesson about Yom Kippur, the holiday on which this portion is also read. For alongside this Torah portion, is read the haftarah from Isaiah, who rebukes the empty fasting of the Israelites with the question, ‘Is this the fast I desire?’ while the people fast and claim piety while ignoring the poor, the widow and the orphan. The prophets highlighted how it is all too easy for us to try to find connection and holiness through the ways of the priest, confusing separation for sanctification, and reverence for ritual. Or as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, ‘Men may not drown the cries of the oppressed with the noise of hymns, nor buy off the Lord with increased offerings.’ The juxtaposition of Yom Kippur rituals with ethical laws serves as a stark reminder that true holiness transcends ritual observance; it lies in our ethical conduct towards others.

“But surely only the priesthood have to bother with that?”, I questioned my class, but these wise talmidei chakhamim disagreed, and the Torah sides with them. For as we delve deeper into the text, we encounter a shift in how God addresses Moses — from “Speak to Aaron and the priests” to “speak to Aaron and to all the children of Israel.” This change underscores the universal nature of the injunctions laid forth, reminding us that the pursuit of holiness is not the sole domain of the priesthood but a calling incumbent upon every individual. We do not have monasteries or monks in Judaism, because to be a member of this tribe is to be deeply enmeshed with the world. Judaism, far from advocating for retreat from the world, calls us to deeply engage with it. It urges us to leave the corners of our fields for those in need, and to welcome the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

Although we are used to speaking of the separation from the sacred and the profane, Rav Kook saw things differently, suggesting that “there only exists the holy and the not yet holy”. In embracing this perspective, our interactions are not trivial but are imbued with the potential for sanctity. Each moment we choose to honor the dignity of another, we become partners in creation, bringing down holiness into our world. Holiness, then, is not found in separation but in connection. Just as the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies with trembling and awe, so too must we approach our relationships with all life with reverence, recognizing in every face the light of the divine spark, and in every embrace, a sacred offering, weaving the threads of holiness into the very fabric of our shared humanity.