Parashat Acharei Mot - "I am the Lord your G-d"
מרן רה"י הרב שבתי סבתו | י אייר התשפא | 22.04.2021
Parashat Acharei Mot
פר' אחרי מות
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
הרב שבתי סבתו
אני ה' אלוקיכם
"I am the Lord your G-d"
Parashat Acharei Mot sets the framework of mitzvot that shape and formulate the Nation of Israel's path. This structure is presented under the headline: "I am the Lord your G-d" (Vayikra 18,2), as Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu to tell the Children of Israel.
Beneath this headline are listed the "sector boundaries", borders that must not be crossed from either side:
כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ
וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכוּ
As the deeds of Egypt, where you dwelled, you shall not do,
and as the deeds of Canaan, to where I am bringing you, you shall not do,
and you shall not follow their laws. (verse 3)
That is to say: You have left the land of Egypt so as to detach yourselves from their depraved customs, and you are now on your way to inherit the Holy Land from the Canaanites so that you may introduce new, positive patterns of behavior to the Land.
This framework is the background for the prohibitions on eating certain foods, as enumerated in the previous Parashah, Shmini, and also for the laws of incest mentioned in this portion of Acharei Mot and the one after it, Kedoshim. As the Torah explains:
אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הִבְדַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים,
וְהִבְדַּלְתֶּם בֵּין הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה לַטְּמֵאָה וּבֵין הָעוֹף הַטָּמֵא לַטָּהֹר.
I am the Lord your G-d, Who has distinguished you from the nations.
You shall distinguish between clean animals and unclean ones,
and between unclean birds and clean ones… (20,24-25)
Again: G-d differentiated us from among the Egyptians on the one hand, and the Canaanites on the other, in order that we walk a new path in the Land of Israel. Why did Hashem choose specifically us for this mission? Apparently, He knows that Israel is the only nation equipped with the fundamental traits necessary for blazing G-d's path in the world, uprooting the errors of the idol-worshipers, and implanting the belief in One G-d and His path in the world.
Precisely for this reason, He forbade us to partake of certain animals, and regulated with whom we may and may not engage in physical relations, and under what conditions. G-d made sure to distance us from anything that might disturb us from fulfilling the mission for which we were chosen as G-d's Nation.
This, then, is the background of the concept of kedushah, holiness or sanctity, regarding both forbidden foods and forbidden sexual relations. The levels of kedushah are proportional to our distance from both.
Let us clarify and delve into the concept of sanctity.
Three levels of holiness are depicted in the wondrous vision of the Prophet Isaiah, in which he saw Hashem and seraphim standing above Him:
וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל זֶה וְאָמַר: קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה' צְבָ-אוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ
…and they called to one another and said:
Holy, holy, holy is the G-d of Hosts, Whose glory fills the entire world. (Yeshayahu 6,3)
This is the structure of the Kedushah prayer that we recite in our daily prayers. This triplicate "holy" serves as a prelude to the third blessing of the Amidah, Atah Kadosh, "You are holy," which also lists three levels of holiness. The blessing is as follows: "You are Holy, and Your name is Holy, and Holy ones praise you every day." Let us detail each stage:
- You are Holy – We open with the most primordial stage, when G-d was alone and the world had not yet been created.
- Your name is Holy – This second stage is when G-d began "considering" creating the world. He gave Himself the Havayah name, referring to Being and Creating, and it was this name by which He chose to be known by His creations.
- Holy ones praise you every day – This is the final stage, referring to the Nation of Israel, sanctified by Hashem.
This three-rung ladder is emphasized in the expanded Atah Kadosh blessing of the High Holiday prayers:
- L'dor vador hamlikhu - "Throughout every generation, accept G-d as King, for He alone is exalted and holy…"
- U'vken yitkadash shimkha Hashem - "May Your name be sanctified, Hashem our G-d -"
- Al yisrael amecha – "- upon Your nation Israel."
Similarly, the central blessing in the Amidah for Shabbat Mincha is built according to the same design: "You are One, and Your name is one, and who is like Your nation Israel, one nation in the land."
From where did the Prophet Yeshayahu draw this idea of three sanctities in this order? The source for this structure is none other than the verse we headlined above: "I am the Lord your G-d." This official and binding declaration, repeated 26 times in the Torah, expresses the same three stages: I; the Lord; your G-d.
The three are parallel to: Before Creation; Creation itself; and after Creation, with the choosing of the Nation of Israel. It is wondrous to see how the Torah relays this message to us in a most brilliant format: Various verses in Vayikra that connect the three sanctities with the heading "I am the Lord your G-d," in a gradated manner. In one of them, Hashem is referred to only as "I," then as "I, the Lord your G-d," and a third time as "I, G-d." These are the verses:
For I am holy (Vayikra 11,45)
כי קדוש אני
For I, G-d, am holy (20,26)
כי קדוש אני ה'
For I, the Lord your G-d, am holy (19,2)
כי קדוש אני ה' אלוקיכם
The first verse refers to Hashem – I – alone, before creation. The second one refers to how Hashem is known as the world comes into being. Finally, the third verse tells us of the dwelling of the Divine Presence amidst the Nation of Israel. Preceded by the word Barukh, Blessed, this last phrase forms the backbone of all our blessings: Barukh Atah Hashem Elokeinu, Blessed are You, the Lord, our G-d.
With all this, however, we still do not understand: What does it mean to say that G-d is holy?
Separation and Dedication
The word "holiness" has two meanings: isolation/separation, and singular dedication. Let us consider the following examples of holiness in which these meanings are manifest.
When a groom says to his bride harei at mekudeshet li, "you are hereby sanctified unto me," he is essentially saying, "You are hereby separated from all other men, dedicating yourself only to me."
When we dedicate an object to G-d or to the Beit HaMikdash, that is, when we "sanctify" it, we are actually separating it from all other objects and dedicating it exclusively to that particular stated purpose. Similarly, a "holy person" is one who has separated himself from profane matters and has dedicated himself solely to the service of G-d.
Quite clearly, these two meanings – separation and dedication – complement and supplement each other.
When G-d commands us "You shall be holy," as He does in the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, He means we must separate ourselves from the other nations and from their customs, in terms of the food we eat, our physical relationships, etc. Differentiating and separating ourselves in this way leads us to the next step: dedicating ourselves solely to the service of G-d.
What, then, is the meaning of the continuation of the above command: "For I, the Lord your G-d, am holy"? If holiness means "to separate," from what does G-d separate Himself?
The answer is that with this declaration, Hashem takes leave of direct supervision and intervention in the affairs of the Gentiles, enabling the laws of nature to exclusively govern them. At the same time, He dedicates His Name and His direct Providence towards Israel – supervising us in accordance with Torah law, not that of nature. He is our singular, dedicated G-d, and we are His special, dedicated nation.
This dual relationship is emphasized by Moshe Rabbeinu at the end of the Torah:
אֶת ה' הֶאֱמַרְתָּ הַיּוֹם לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו...
וַה' הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה
You have selected the Lord this day, to be your God,
and to walk in His ways, and to observe His statutes …
And the Lord has selected you this day to be His treasured people (Dvarim 26,17-18)
This verse, too, tells us that G-d withdraws from direct supervision over the other nations, and dedicates it instead only to the People of Israel. At the same time, He demands of us that we withdraw and separate ourselves from various practices of the nations, as enumerated above, so that we may be suitable to be His Nation, fulfilling His Divine mission.
From here, we proceed to the following verse:
וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים
Sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy (Vayikra 11,44)
Why the duplication? Is not Sanctify yourselves the same as you shall be holy? The answer is no. on two levels. The straightforward understanding of this verse tells us that the level of sanctity must first be formed, and only then can it be manifested. That is to say: Become sanctified, and remain that way.
The two are different from another standpoint as well, based on the two meanings we have given for kedushah: "Sanctify yourselves" – by separating from the other nations' customs; and "you shall be holy" – dedicate yourselves unto G-d.
Quite clearly, these two different steps are mutually dependent, as can be seen from the following verse:
וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה' וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי
Be holy unto Me, for I, G-d, am holy,
and I have separated you from among the nations to be Mine. (20,26)
The Medrash Rabba to this verse enigmatically states: "My holiness is higher than that of yours (Israel's)" (Vayikra Rabba 24,9). These words are like an uninterpreted dream. Is it not obvious that G-d is more holy than we are?
The Medrash is saying that this verse reveals to us that Hashem's commitment towards us is greater and deeper than ours towards Him. In practical terms, this means that even if the worst happens and we violate our Covenant with Him, He will never violate His Covenant with us. Even if the People of Israel choose, Heaven forbid, to worship other gods, He still will never replace us with another nation.
As is written:
...בְּמִשְׁפָּטַי מָאָסוּ וְאֶת חֻקֹּתַי גָּעֲלָה נַפְשָׁם...וְאַף גַּם זֹאת בִּהְיוֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם לֹא מְאַסְתִּים וְלֹא גְעַלְתִּים לְכַלֹּתָם לְהָפֵר בְּרִיתִי אִתָּם כִּי אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיהֶם
… [they] despised My ordinances and rejected My statutes.
But still… I will not despise them nor will I reject them to annihilate them,
thereby breaking My covenant with them, for I am the Lord their G-d. (26,43-44)
Law and Justice
Let us further our pursuit of an understanding of the nature of G-d's holiness. Consider the following important verse:
וַיִּגְבַּהּ ה' צְבָאוֹת בַּמִּשְׁפָּט וְהָאֵל הַקָּדוֹשׁ נִקְדָּשׁ בִּצְדָקָה
G-d, the Lord of Hosts, will be exalted in judgment,
and the holy G-d shall be hallowed with justness. (Yeshayahu 5,16)
In what way is G-d called "holy," and how is His name sanctified? The verse tells us that it is via tzedakah. Though we often translate this word as "charity," throughout the Bible it actually means "justice." That is to say, the singular and unique trait of the Creator is manifest by the effecting of absolute justice, in the absolute deepest sense of the term.
The main proof that tzedakah means "justice" stems from these words of Isaiah: "With tzedakah shall you be established; distance yourself from monetary oppression,
for you shall not fear" (Yeshayahu 54,14). The way to distance ourselves from deceptive monetary practices is by acting justly. The prophet guides Israel and says: By doing justice, your redemption will be readied.
When we combine this with what we have said above, the result will be the following: Hashem acted justly in having chosen Israel to fulfill His mission in the world, and He is therefore just in forbidding them those things that would preclude the fulfillment of the mission. Accordingly, there is also justice in the fact that He differentiated them from the nations, and it is just for Israel to keep G-d's precepts and laws. This is precisely what Moshe told Israel in his parting speech:
וּצְדָקָה תִּהְיֶה לָּנוּ כִּי נִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת
לִפְנֵי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּנוּ
And it will be tzedakah that we keep to observe all these commandments
before the Lord, our G-d, as He has commanded us. (Dvarim 6,25)
That is, if we observe G-d's commandments as He charged us, it will be considered "just."
Sanctified and Hallowed
Looking again at the three "holies" in Isaiah's prophecy, we note a pasek (a type of comma) following the first word "holy," separating it from the other two mentions. What is the nature of this division?
According to our introduction above, the first "holy" parallels G-d's will prior to Creation – something of which we have no comprehension, and cannot even speak. Permission is granted us to speak about G-d's will only from the time of Creation and onward – for we are a part of this Creation. Thus can we understand the pasek after the first "holy."
The Medrash provides a different angle:
- Avin said: This can be likened to a king's subjects who fashioned three crowns for him. What did the king do? He put one on his head, and gave the other two to his sons.
Similarly, the angels crown the Holy One with three sanctities every day, and what does G-d do? He wears one of them on His head, and places the other two on the head of His nation Israel. (Vayikra Rabba 24,8)
This very picturesque description actually expresses a very sublime concept. But let us first ask: Why does G-d take only one sanctity, while giving two to Israel? The same Medrash provides the answer:
One holiness goes to the upper worlds, where the Evil Inclination has no power, as is written, "by the word of the holy ones is the edict…" (Daniel 4,14).
But in the lower words, where the Evil Inclination has control, would it be [it is to be hoped] that two sanctities would suffice! As Israel is told: "You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy." (Vayikra 11,44; 20,7)
More sanctity is required in the physical world, because the human drive to misbehave, known as the Evil Inclination, necessitates extra holiness to offset it. But if so, why just two sanctities? Perhaps more are required?
Two are sufficient because what is needed is not just more holiness, but rather two very specific types of sanctity. To illustrate, picture a spaceship or satellite cruising forever through outer space practically on its own, after an initial powerful push. Similarly, Earth and the planets revolve constantly around the sun and do not need any additional impetus, for there is no resistant air to obstruct their movement.
On the other hand, here on Earth, the air of our atmosphere causes friction with whatever moves through it, and energy activation is required at all times. An airplane whose engines stop in mid-flight will lose power and velocity, bringing it down with a resounding crash.
This example helps us understand why we need two sanctities – two actions – here in the physical world: one to reach a position of holiness, and the other to keep us there. As is written:
וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי
You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy (Vayikra 11,44)
The first action is pro-active undertaking of becoming sanctified. The second step is to "be holy," i.e., to maintain this level of sanctity over a period of time, requiring a continuous effort. This is because in our reality, we encounter constant resistance in the form of our Evil Inclination, necessitating constant effort. The words "be holy" teach us that it is not enough to rise up once and "sanctify yourselves"; we must always work to remain on that high level of sanctity.
In the upper spiritual world, however, where there is no Evil Inclination and no spiritual "resistance," the original, initial act of sanctification suffices for its effect to remain eternal.
Sanctifying the Month
All of the above is manifest in the declaration of each new month as sanctified by the Beit Din. The Sages of the Sanhedrin were authorized to determine the date of each new month, based on the testimony of witnesses who saw the first glimmer of the new moon.
Determining the first day of the new month means also fixing the dates of the holidays, including Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The actual obligations to fast on Yom Kippur and to refrain from work on festivals are, of course, Biblical – but the determination of the dates on which these commands apply was given over to the Sanhedrin of Israel.
The Mishna tells us how the new month was announced. After the testimony of the witnesses was heard and approved, the head of the court would declare the new month "Sanctified!" And all those present would answer after him, "Sanctified, sanctified." (Tractate Rosh HaShanah, chapter 2)
We thus again see three sanctities divided into one and two: The representative of the Heavenly determination of the month first says sanctified one time, and then the nation here on earth responds and confirms two times: Sanctified, sanctified. This law is derived from the following verses in Parashat Emor, where the various festivals are detailed:
אֵלֶּה מוֹעֲדֵי ה' אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ
These are the festivals of G-d
that you shall proclaim as proclamations of sanctity… (Vayikra 23, 37)
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶת מֹעֲדֵי ה' אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
Moshe told G-d's festivals to the Children of Israel. (verse 44)
We again see the same structure: The first verse, describing Israel's role in the sanctification process, repeats the word "proclaim" twice, while the verse referring to G-d's festivals is written in singular.
When a person reaches the level of "holiness," it is incumbent upon him to maintain this level over a period of time; this is a life-long struggle. However, he will thus merit a Divine crown upon his head, as the Prophet tells us (Yeshayahu 49,3):
וַיֹּאמֶר לִי, עַבְדִּי אָתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר בְּךָ אֶתְפָּאָר.
And He said to me, "You are My servant, Israel, about whom I will boast."