Parshas Acharei Mos

In this week’s Sedra, Hashem commands us as to the Avoda (Service) of Yom-Kippur. The Torah first tells us the intricacies of the Sacrificial Services that were to be performed by the Kohen Gadol in order to achieve atonement. After the Torah prescribes the Avodas Hakorbanos (Sacrificial Service) of Yom-Kippur the torah tells us: “because on this day you will achieve atonement to purify yourselves from all sin; before Hashem you shall purify yourselves.” The apparent oddity in this statement is that the Hebrew word the Torah uses for purity is Tahara. In last week’s Sedros the concept of Tahara was dealt with extensively. However, there was no direct correlation between Tumah (impure – the opposite of Tahara) and sin, nor to Tahara having anything to do with the lack thereof. In last week’s Sedra the idea of tumah appeared in conjunction with a woman after birth, where there, is there a presence of sin?

The next Passuk continues to tell us:”it is a Sabbath of Sabbaths onto you and you shall afflict your souls; a statute for eternity.” All the Mefarshim address the description of Yom-Kippur as a Sabbath, and focus on why the Sabbath terminology must be repeated. Rashi in Gemorah Yuma (81b) and Eben-Ezra on the Passuk both take the approach that the redundancy of the term Shabbos is in order to indicate the idea that this Shabbos is different from all other Shabbassos in that it is a day of rest for the soul as well – not just for the physical body.  The problem with this explanation is it only complicates things: why should afflicting one’s soul be a way to give the soul rest?

Furthermore, why is it that suffering, ‘afflicting’ ourselves achieves atonement? Is that really what Hashem wants, for us to be tormented? What does Hashem gain by having us suffer? Or indeed what do we gain by suffering?

Perhaps we should take a brief look at the aforementioned scenario of impurity/purity, or Tumah/Tahara using for this the case of a woman post birth. A woman after experiencing one of the most spiritual processes, that of giving birth, becomes impure. It seems almost ironic that in return for her being a partner with Hashem in the birth of a child she is given the status of being impure. While a man’s partnership in the creation of a child is more minor, he too acquires the status of Tumah after being intimate with his wife (a much lesser level: Baal-Keri). The highest level of impurity is that of a dead person. While Tumah status has no impact on the corpse, it does have an impact on those tending to the deceased. Those who take care of the dead and who are actually fulfilling a commandment of Hashem, also acquire Tumah status.

By now I think we can see a pattern forming: it seems that whenever there is a tremendous closeness to Hashem and then a stark diminishing of that closeness Tumah is triggered. In the case of both husband and wife in the creation of a child it is quite apparent that right away upon their completing their role in the partnership of creation with Hashem they then lose their closeness to Hashem. As soon as they finish their role they immediately become ‘impure’ (perhaps this is the reason why the whole time during pregnancy a women generally doesn’t have the status of Tumah but rather maintains the status of Tehorah – ‘pure’ because she is involved in an extremely close relationship with Hashem). In the case of a corpse, it would appear that we have a manifestation of the same idea. The whole time while man is alive the body maintains a strong connection with Hashem because of the Holy Neshama – the soul that man carries. Hence, the moment man passes on and the body and soul separate, the body has instantly been unconnected from Hashem and thereby been rendered ‘impure’.

True, Tumah and Taharah have no direct correlation with Chet (sin), but perhaps since sin creates a void between man and his Creator it thus fosters Tumah, and Mitzvos to the contrary connect us with Hashem hence fostering Taharah.  This is manifest in the plague of Tzaraas (leprosy) about which we read last week. Tzaraas would render the afflicted individual Tamai – impure. Chazal list a number of possible causes for this plague, most of which are sins.

The Torah tells us that Yom-Kippur is the Sabbath of Sabbaths and Chazal interpret this to mean that it is a Shabbos for the body and also a Shabbos for the soul. The idea of Shabbos, as is evident in its very name, is rest; the point of resting is to recognize that Hashem has created a complete world that continues to function even if we take a break. If Hashem’s world is indeed complete, why do we work at all? The answer is that we live in sync with Hashem, and just as Hashem creates – ‘works’ six days and then rests on the seventh day, we do likewise. This act of Imitatio–dei is more than just emulating Hashem, but rather actually an act of attaching ourselves to Hashem. However the regular Shabbos cycle is only in the physical realm, in the realm of doing. Yom-Kippur on the other hand is already much higher: it is on a completely spiritual level that we must seize to do everything. We stop concerning ourselves with our bodily functions and needs to the greatest of our abilities as we become attached to Hashem in the most complete coherent manner.  In essence Yom-Kippur is the epitome of Shabbos.

The Torah uses the words ועינתם את נפשותיכם ‘and you shall afflict your souls’ because the Torah is commanding us to do that which would usually be viewed as affliction. The Torah is instructing us to become one with Hashem, to bridge the gap that we have created between ourselves and Hashem. In order to do so we must so to speak afflict ourselves. We cannot, however, live permanently at such an intense level. Thus the Torah emphasizes that this annual purification process – Yom-Kippur – is a day which is to serve to reunite us with Hashem.  This lofty level of Taharah is meant for us to utilize in order to revitalize that synthesis between us and Hashem that we are meant to live with on a constant basis.


The end part of this week’s Sedra deals with forbidden relationships. The Torah tells us that we must distance ourselves from the abominations practiced by the people inhabiting the Land of Israel at the time of Klal Yisroel’s conquest. It is in those terms that the Torah sums up its instructions concerning the various prohibited personal relationships.

While the Torah often concludes a series of detailed instructions or commands on a particular topic with a general warning, the warning here is formulated in a particularly interesting way.   In referring to the wrongful behaviour of the peoples then inhabiting the Land, the Torah speaks of their “practices”, their “traditions” (Chukos).  Why does the Torah need to inject these descriptive terms for the pagans’ wrongful actions? The Torah could have merely said that we should distance ourselves from the abominations of the peoples of the land.  What are these specific words telling us?

Chazal tell us that if one sees a Talmid Chochom engaging in a forbidden act at night one shouldn’t think poorly of the Talmid Chochom. The reason Chazal give for telling us to view the matter in a positive light is that we must think that the Talmid Chochom might have done Teshuva right away. The Gemorah then immediately amends its own statement by adding that we should think not that he ‘might’ have done Teshuva, but that the Talmid Chochom certainly and immediately did Teshuva. Why do Chazal amend their teaching immediately to tell us that the Talmid Chochom certainly did Teshuva?  Are we not obligated to judge him favourably regardless of whether he might have done, or actually did do, Teshuva?

It seems that Chazal are teaching us that someone who accustoms himself to learning Torah cannot possibly live in sin.  Rather, if the individual in question sinned, it must mean that while he might have temporarily succumbed to sin, he ultimately – and immediately – atoned for it.

Unlawful (illicit) behavior is habitual. Either someone is in the habit of sinning or he is not. Anybody can succumb to temptation and sin at any given time, and we must therefore always pay attention so as not to be drawn into sin.  What we must strive for, and accustom ourselves to, in the final analysis is a sin-free Torah life style.