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A Nation of Priests

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

From the beginning of the book of Vayikra, our attention has been focused on the Mishkan and the rituals to be performed in it. When viewed as a corpus, the myriad laws that comprise "Leviticus" up to this point establish the Mishkan as the epicenter of the Jewish People – both in the geographical sense, as it was positioned in the encampment in the desert, and, as a result, in the symbolic sense, as the center of Jewish life. The various instances of tum'ah (usually translated as "impurity") enumerated in Vayikra are expressions of this Mishkan-centric reality. Tum'ah and the Mishkan are irreconcilable, and when an individual becomes impure, a process that restores him or her to a state taharah is required before reentry into the Mishkan is once again possible.

Aharei Mot begins with the service to be performed each year on Yom Kippur. Even today, we are well-acquainted with the meaning of this day and its detailed ritual of atonement: On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) follows the instructions laid out in Parashat Aharei Mot in order to heal the relationship between man and God. However, a careful reading reveals that although Yom Kippur focuses on expunging the sins accrued by the Jewish People over the course of the year, it is equally concerned with atoning for the sin of allowing the Mishkan itself to become impure.

This dual focus might lead us to the conclusion that the laws of purity and impurity enumerated in Vayikra are pertinent only insofar as the Mishkan is concerned – an orientation reflected in the moniker "Leviticus" – while outside the Mishkan, holiness was less important, if not altogether irrelevant.

The second section of Parashat Aharei Mot proves otherwise.

Following the discussion of the Yom Kippur service, Aharei Mot focuses on forbidden sexual liaisons. The shift in focus is abrupt, and it is significant for a number of reasons: First and foremost, orgiastic celebrations and other sexually depraved practices were common elements of ancient "religious" cultic practice. By creating clear, immutable categories of permitted and forbidden relationships, the Torah severely curtailed sexual behavior, making cultic licentiousness impossible.

However, the significance of these laws goes beyond the creation of new norms for religious expression. The laws enumerated in Parashat Aharei Mot go beyond the confines of the Mishkan; these are not exclusively "temple" laws that regulate cultic practice. The prohibitions against sexual depravity were not only a consideration "before God" in the Mishkan or, later, in the Temple; these laws go far beyond eschewing the cultic and fertility rites common in the ancient world. These same norms, we are taught, apply to each and every one of us, in each and every home, each and every relationship and interaction. Here, then, lies the greater message: Tum'ah and taharah are as applicable in the Temple as they are outside of the Temple. The Jewish home is a place of holiness; adultery, incest, and bestiality are unacceptable anywhere and everywhere.

From the moment they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and prepared themselves to receive and obey Torah law, the Jewish People became not only a "treasured nation," a "holy nation"- but "a kingdom of priests." (Shmot 19:5-6) This is no simple turn of phrase; it indicates that the entire People, men women and children, all have the status of priests (kohanim) at all times, in their normal lives, and not because they perform specific rituals in the Temple. To be sure, the rituals described in Leviticus could be performed only in the Mishkan (and, later, in the Temple in Jerusalem), but the laws of tum'ah and tahahrah were not limited to the Temple. The Jewish People were given laws of purity that would create holiness in their personal lives as well, and each and every Jewish home was imbued with this holiness. Each and every home became a sort of temple, and just as pagan sexual practices were not permitted in the Mishkan, so, too, these practices are forbidden in every home, assuring that the entire nation is holy – every person, in every locale, truly God's "treasured nation" – "a kingdom of priests."

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