> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Reflections

No Matter Who, Where or When

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

The beginning of this parsha deals with the service of the Kohein Gadol on Yom Kippur. The end of the parsha deals with the prohibition of arayos, forbidden relationships. The juxtaposition, at first glance, may seem somewhat odd. After all, Yom Kippur is the height of holiness and purity - a day when we are akin to angels- and the chapter of forbidden relations addresses the most base and coarse aspect of humanity. This connection becomes all the more impossible to ignore when we recall the fact that the Torah reading during Mincha of Yom Kippur is in fact this very parsha of the forbidden relations!

Tosafos explain that the reason we read the parsha of forbidden relations on Yom Kippur is that the women are dressed up nicely in honor of the day, and we therefore read this section to warn people not to stumble in sin.(1)

This explanation begs further explanation. On Yom Kippur - especially by Mincha time - we are exhausted, hungry, and in a very pure state of prayer and teshuvah. The women, as well, certainly don't look their finest by this time of the day. Furthermore, women get dressed up nicely for every Yom Tov. On every other Yom Tov we are not tired and hungry, and we are not on the exalted spiritual level of Yom Kippur. Wouldn't it make a lot more sense, then, to read this section on some other Yom Tov? Of all the Yamim Tovim, why was Yom Kippur chosen to drive this point home?

The message is extremely penetrating and pertinent: even when you are at the loftiest height of spirituality - and your body is weakened from fasting and davening all day - you nevertheless have to be on guard from forbidden relations. Ein apatrapos l'arayos,(2) there is no custodian that can safeguard from forbidden relations. No one is immune to the powerful, lustful urges of the animal component of our bodies. We read the parsha of forbidden relations precisely on Yom Kippur to drive this point home; that one can never ever let his guard down, because there is never even one moment in a person's life that is not subject to this powerful yeitzer hara.

Similarly, there is no person - no matter how great he may be - who is immune to this yeitzer hara. The Gemara in Kiddushin(3) says, "Rabbi Meir would make fun of those that sin (by violating forbidden relations). One day the Satan appeared to Rabbi Meir in the form of a woman on the other side of a river. There was no boat, so Rabbi Meir (who was overcome with desire) held on to a rope (that was strung from one end of the river to the other over a narrow beam) and started to traverse the river. When he got halfway over, the Satan revealed himself. The Satan said, "If not for the fact that in Heaven it is announced 'Be careful with Rabbi Meir and his Torah,' I would have made your blood worth two ma'ah." The Gemara continues with a similar episode related regarding Rabbi Akiva who climbed a tree chasing what he thought was a beautiful woman, until the Satan revealed himself in the same manner and with the same declaration as with Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir were two of the greatest Tannaim. We cannot even begin to fathom their exalted level of kedusha and tahara. Nevertheless, the Gemara teaches us that even they - on their sublime level - could have potentially sinned if not for the unique heavenly assistance afforded to them.

The Gemara recounts further(4) that Rabbi Meir would tell people, "Be careful with me because of my daughter (i.e. don't leave me alone with her)," and Rabbi Tarfon would tell people, "Be careful with me because of my daughter in law (i.e. don't leave me alone with her)."

The Gemara then recounts how there was a certain student who made fun of Rabbi Tarfon for saying this, "and it was not long before this student stumbled in sin with his mother in law."

Rav Aharon Lopiansky explained that what we are to learn from this Gemara is that one will never be held responsible for having this or that desire.(5) What one will be held accountable for is not taking the appropriate steps to distance oneself from the object/s of his lust. The fact that one may have a particular desire is not reason to feel bad at all; but not acknowledging that desire and taking the necessary steps to avoid sinning could be disastrous!

But what of the possible embarrassment involved in taking such precautions?

To answer that question, we must quote one more passage from the aforementioned Gemara: "Jewish women that were redeemed from their captors were brought to the home of Rav Amram the pious.(6) After they were situated in the loft (to retire for the evening), the stair-ladder was taken down (to avoid a situation of yichud/seclusion). When one of the women passed by the opening (to the loft) a light fell into the house (through the opening).(7) Rav Amram (who was overcome with desire) picked up the stair-ladder - which was so heavy that even ten men could not lift it - by himself, and began to go up the loft. When he got halfway up the ladder he spread his legs and stood in a firm position (in an attempt to conquer his desire). He raised his voice and called out, "There is a fire in the house of Amram!" The Rabbis came and (upon realizing what was going on) they said, "You have embarrassed us!" Rav Amram responded, "Better that you be embarrassed in Amram's house in this world than that you be embarrassed of him in the World to Come!"


1. Megilla 31a.

2. Kesubos 13b, Chullin 11b, Niddah 30b.

3. 81a.

4. 81b, "and therefore it happened after the above incident..."

5. Unless, of course, one deliberately cultivated the desire.

6. This word was emphasized because we truly cannot even begin to imagine the tremendous implications of such a title during the time of Chazal!

7. Probably - on a simple level of understanding - this is a reference to the fire of the lust for arayos. See Maharsha there.

1 2 3 2,900

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram