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Parashat Acharei Mot / Kedoshim

Dedicated Leilui Nishmat Chana bat Vivian, A’H,

by Nathan Tawil and Family.

Parashat Acharei Mot / Kedoshim

The Deaths of Aharon’s Sons

This week’s parasha is called Acharei Mot and begins with the passuk, “Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe acharei mot shenei b’nei Aharon bekarbatam lifnei Hashem vayamutuHashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons, when they came before Hashem, and they died.”

As we learned a few weeks ago, Aharon’s sons’ passing occurred in Parashat Shemini. This week’s parasha brings up the death of Aharon’s two sons again, and it’s even named Acharei Mot—After the Death for this tragic event.

Nadav and Avihu were two great tzaddikim. According to Chazal, the sin they committed that caused their death was that they brought a foreign incense into the Mishkan without discussing it with each other — but more importantly, without the consent of their rabbi, Moshe Rabbenu. According to Rashbam, Moshe was waiting to bring incense only after the descent of the heavenly fire, because he wanted the first incense to be kindled with Hashem’s own fire to bring about a kiddush Hashem! Nadav and Avihu did not realize this and rushed to bring incense with their own fire. This teaches us an important lesson. As much as one thinks he may know a certain halacha, he should always consult his rabbi before doing something that could be questionable or even forbidden.

An obvious question is why this incident is brought down here in this parasha, when it actually happened earlier. The answer is in the next passuk, “And Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Speak to Aharon, your brother; he shall not come at all times into the Kodesh Kodashim, so that he [Aharon] should not die.’” Hashem used this incident to teach Aharon of the halachot of the Kodesh Kodashim. Rashi explains this with a parable of a person who is sick and goes to the doctor. The doctor warns his patient to stay away from certain foods and get the proper rest in order to recover quickly. If the doctor scares the patient, telling him that he could die if he doesn’t adhere to his instructions, the patient will be more likely to listen and follow the doctor’s orders.

But why is the Torah compelled to use these strong words — “don’t do it or you’ll die” — with Aharon, who was the kohen gadol and equal in spirituality to Moshe? Is there the slightest chance that Aharon would not obey Moshe’s instructions, even without the reminder of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths?

The Torah is teaching us an important lesson. As long as we inhabit our physical body, we will always have strong drives for forbidden things. Even Aharon could need to be taught a painful lesson to be able to overcome his yetzer hara. How much more so should we, who are at a much lower level of spirituality than Aharon, realize the danger of ignoring the consequences of prohibited acts?

Forbidden Relationships

The perek then continues to list all the forbidden relationships that we must abstain from. The Torah goes on at some length, describing each one of these prohibited relationships. These specific practices are mentioned because they were common in Egypt, where the Israelites lived for 210 years. When people live in a certain place for a long period of time, foreign ideologies become deeply ingrained in them. That’s why the Torah had to make such a point of saying that all of these foreign practices are forbidden.

This is similar to what has been going on in American society today. Ask your parents and grandparents what life was like in the old days. America had moral values, and the people of this country were much more modest and had a better work ethic, but over time those morals and ethics have eroded to what we are experiencing today. We cannot be fooled into thinking that our environment doesn’t influence us, because it definitely does. That’s why we must live within the confines of our communities, to make sure that our families are protected from the foreign elements of today’s society. This is the lesson we learn from our ancestors. When B’nei Yisrael left the decadent society of Egypt, they also had to shed their baggage, so it would not accompany them as they headed to take up residence in their new homeland of Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Frand comments on the particular prohibition where a man is forbidden to engage in a relationship between two sisters. Unlike the other immoral relationships, the Torah did not forbid this because it’s essentially disgraceful, but because of the social harm it would bring to the sibling bond. Placing two sisters into this situation will inevitably cause those who should have been best of friends to have a hostile relationship with one another. The Torah distinguishes that it’s inappropriate to make two sisters into co-wives to show how important it is for siblings to get along with each other. Whether we ourselves are siblings or whether we are parents with children who are siblings, we all know that this is indeed a very big challenge.

Rabbi David Ashear wrote a story in Living Emunah 5 about loyalty between siblings. Shlomo, a taxi driver in Israel picked up a distinguished-looking man in need of a ride from the airport. As they drove toward their destination, the passenger casually rolled up his sleeves. “It’s warm in here, right?” he asked conversationally. Shlomo glanced over, and when he saw the man’s arm, he gasped. “Are you all right?” the passenger asked, noting Shlomo’s distress.

Shlomo proceeded to tell him a story. “Years ago, I worked on a kibbutz. My job was sorting apples. I would put the good apples in one pile, to be sold, and throw the lower quality apples into a giant blender to make juice. One day, I had an urge to see how the blender worked. After filling it with bruised apples, I climbed up to the top to watch the apples get chopped. Suddenly, I lost my balance and fell into the deep vat. The machine was running, and I had very little time before the blades would strike me. I began to scream. Right in the nick of time, I felt someone grab me. He pulled me out and saved my life. I thanked him profusely from the bottom of my heart. From that day forward, we became friends.”

“On occasion,” Shlomo continued, “I noticed my new friend would seem depressed. One day, I gathered the nerve to pry and asked him what was bothering him. He told me he was a Holocaust survivor. He and his only brother went through the war together before he was taken away. ‘I haven’t seen him since,’ my friend said. ‘Sometimes I think about him and I get really sad, remembering how close we were.’” Shlomo said to the passenger, “He showed me the number on his arm, 8862. His brother’s number was one higher, 8863. It has been about ten years since my friend told me that story. He still gets sad about his long-lost brother. I’ll never forget that number. You just raised your sleeve and it’s there! 8863!!”

Shlomo drove his passenger straight to his friend’s home and let his tears flow unchecked as he watched the brothers’ emotional reunion. This episode was orchestrated by Hashem for many years, showing us the loyalty of a sibling is unmatched.

Kedoshim Tiheyu

The first passuk of this week’s parasha, Kedoshim, begins, “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Speak to the entire assembly of B’nei Yisrael and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your G-d, am holy.’” The command “kedoshim tiheyu—you shall be holy” requires us to strive for kedusha—holiness, but what exactly does holiness mean, and how are we to go about pursuing it? Rabbi Mansour comments that when a couple gets married, the groom says to the bride, “Hareh at mekudeshet li,” declaring that she is mekudeshet, or set apart, designated exclusively for him. Similarly, when a person would consecrate an animal as a sacrifice in the times of the Bet Hamikdash, he would declare the animal as “hekdesh.” He set this animal apart from others, making it different and distinct.

Kadosh essentially means different. When the Torah commands us to be holy, it means that we are to be different and distinct from other people in the world. We must live to a higher standard and with a different set of principles and priorities. The nature and direction of our lives must be fundamentally different from that of other people.

Before God presented the laws to Moshe in Parashat Kedoshim, He instructed that they must be spoken to the entire nation. Whereas other mitzvot of the Torah were first transmitted to the leaders and then taught to the rest of the nation, these laws were presented at an assembly of all B’nei Yisrael. Rabbi Mansour explains that this is because “holiness” can only be pursued together with other people. If being holy means being separate and going against the pressure and intimidation of society, it’s very difficult for one to swim against the tide alone. The best chance we have of achieving kedusha is in a group, working together with like-minded people. The mitzvah of kedoshim tiheyu was issued at a national assembly because only when the nation works together can kedusha be achieved.

It is crucial for everyone to find a place, such as a regular Torah class, in which he or she is surrounded by others who seek kedusha. We cannot go about this ambitious endeavor alone; we need the strength and support of a group working together to resist the tide so that we are worthy of a meaningful relationship with Hashem.

Judge Everyone Favorably

You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness shall you judge your fellow (Vayikra 19:15).”

Rashi explains that this means giving a person the benefit of the doubt. The obligation to give the benefit of the doubt is recorded in Pirkei Avot “Vehevei dan et kol ha’adam le’chaf zechut—Judge every person favorably (1:6).” The book Classics on the Torah points out that the Gemara (Shabbat 127b) mentions an axiom that seems to be based on the concept of middah k’neged middah—measure for measure. One who judges his friend favorably will be judged favorably. The Gemara then re­cords several incidents where people were judged favorably. At the conclusion of each event, the following blessing was given to the one who gave the benefit of the doubt: Just as you judged me favorably, may Hashem judge you favorably.

But this statement brings along its own set of questions. If I see someone driving on Shabbat or eating non-kosher, I’m obligated to give that person the benefit of the doubt. I must assume that he has some medical condition that calls for eating unkosher food, or that there is an emergency that requires him to drive to a nearby hospital. I must judge him favorably, and in return, Heaven will give me the benefit of the doubt.

This is hard to understand because, unlike humans who have unclear details, Hashem knows my motivation for everything. If I commit a forbidden act, Hashem has no safek—doubt, and any extenuating circumstances that would possibly permit this act are revealed to Him. It’s only us, the imperfect humans, who are uncertain as to a person’s motivation and must give the benefit of the doubt. So how will Hashem give me the benefit of the doubt? Before we answer this question, we have another question on the above-mentioned mishnah from Pirkei Avot, “Vehevei dan et kol ha’adam le’chaf zechut. One would have expected the mishnah to say, “kol adam,” which means “every man.” Why does it say “kol ha’adam” whose literal meaning is “all the man?”

The Sefat Emet explains that we are not only supposed to give the benefit of the doubt to the man and the questionable action that he did; we are supposed to judge the entire person, “kol ha’adam” which will lead us to be more favorably inclined toward him. What other virtuous acts does this person commit? Is he otherwise a good, honest person who lives his life serving Hashem? Then he must have some sort of reason for driving.

Judging the whole person also applies to someone you cannot come up with an excuse for doing forbidden things. For instance, if this person is driving on Shabbat, and I [think I] know 100% he does not have an emergency or any other situation I could use to rationalize this act, I must consider all that brought him to where he is today, the time that he sinned. This includes his poor home life and upbringing and the trauma that he may have suffered as a child. This mishnah helps me to mitigate the severity of his actions. All in all, given his particular circumstances, he was doing the best that he could.

With this definition of all the man, the explanation of the Gemara takes on a new meaning. If I judge “kol ha’adam,” meaning that I look at the “whole person” and am therefore sympathetic, Hashem will, in turn, do the same for me. It is not about Hashem having doubt, but about understanding that we are doing our best. This tremendous compassion is available to us if we initiate it first. If I go easy on someone based on his whole story, then Hashem will do the same for me.

We’re currently counting the Omer, a time when we lost 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students because, as the Gemara says, they didn’t give each other the proper respect. As we’re leading up to Matan Torah and the Holiday of Shavuot, we must have a special awareness and take extra care to love each Jew as a brother or sister from our Father in Heaven. Then we will surely bring Mashiach in our days!

May we be loyal to our own siblings and teach our children to get along and love each other, because they are our future and legacy!! May we always try to give others the benefit of the doubt and judge others favorably so that Hashem in turn will judge us favorably! May we continue to keep the laws of kashrut, family purity, and modest dress as reminders of our status as a separate and holy nation. May we work together, loving our fellow brother, to resist the tide so that we are worthy of a meaningful relationship with Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Amram Sananes, written by Jack Rahmey

Discussion Point:

  • Did we ever not judge someone favorably, only to find that we were completely wrong?

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