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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Acharei-Kedoshim

Updated: May 3, 2020

Parashat Acharei-Kedoshim

Iyar 8, 5780 – May 2, 2020

Torah Reading: Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing the dual reading of Acharei and Kedoshim. There are a number of themes that could be addressed this week, as both of these Torah portions have a lot to offer for earth-centered commentary. For instance, Acharei is the Hebrew word for “after.” Sometimes this sidra is referred to as Acharei Mot meaning “after the death [of]”[1] – the ‘of’ is implied as it is a reference to the passing of Aaron’s two sons: Nadav and Avihu. Previously, we were only told that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they brought a forbidden offering. But in the opening line we read: “When they approached before Hashem, and they died.” (16:1) This has led various Sages[2] to conclude that it was not the unauthorized entry, nor the forbidden offering, that led to their death – it was their inability (or, perhaps even, their unwillingness) to return to this earthly realm after their approach to G-d. This point is evidenced by the subsequent restriction that is given to Aaron, who can only enter the Holy of Holies once a year on Yom Kippur. But if we read between the lines, this has much to teach us about the conditions that either help – or hinder – the productiveness of our own spiritual practice. One premise supporting the link between religion and ecology is that their integrity is co-dependent; spiritual practice can benefit the earth, and the earth can teach us about our own spirituality. In this way, ecology and religion are mutually dependent, and interactive, disciplines. If we engage too deeply with spiritual modalities that detract from the earthen nature of our practice, we can instigate material instabilities that affect our lives and our souls. In 16:6, the verse reads that the Kohen Gadol must “provide atonement for himself and for his household.” The implication, here, is that the High Priest needed to be married to perform the Yom Kippur service, but with that also comes the understanding that marriage and the ‘household’ is at the heart of Jewish life. To serve the holiest place, to rise to the greatest of spiritual realms, one must also be wedded to elements of materiality that have material obligations. There are inherent dangers in practices that detach us from earthly responsibilities, or even an awareness of the earth and our ‘home’. This is clearly demonstrated by the circumstances (and rules) surrounding the Yom Kippur Service.

In the passages involved with this service, a ritual is described, whereby the High Priest places the sins of the nation upon two goats: 1) one is sacrificed by being pushed over a cliff in the desert, and 2) the other is sent off into the wilderness as a ‘scapegoat’. Although this ritual (in this particular form)[3] doesn’t exist anymore, there is much to be benefited through a discussion around the differences – and apparent synergy – between communal and individual varieties of atonement. The Talmud (Yoma 5a) relates that “confession is an essential part of repentance, and hence of atonement.”[4] A healthy demonstration of confession involves reflecting upon the misdeeds of the previous year, taking responsibility for those transgressions, and employing – with genuine sincerity – a resolve to implement real change in one’s life. The central themes around Yom Kippur – repentance, mercy, and forgiveness – are certainly worth reflecting on, in relation to the human treatment of the earth. Although this is a bit too detailed to get into here, the notion of taking complete and utter responsibility for one’s actions is a vital step for the institution of positive change, and is worth noting as there are many, established ideologies that are still denying the harm we are causing to the planet. In 16:29 we read the expression “you shall afflict yourselves,” which has led to the modern practice of abstaining from food, drink, and other creature comforts. Basically, one fasts from material practices, and takes a rest from aspects of our humanness which limit the spiritual ascent needed for atonement. But, the two lots that were cast over the he-goats by the High Priest were done so for the entire nation of Israel; there is something very special impelling a communal form of atonement and powering the possibility of a new beginning for everyone. The kavanah, or intention, behind the modern individual’s process of atonement is linked to the ritual once performed by the High Priest for the entire nation. The point here is what now appears individuated, once was – and always has been – a process done for the collective; our earnest prayers and sincere confessions can initiate the atonement effected by the blood of the communal he-goat.[5] Blood is an agent of atonement because blood is life and represents our dedication to uphold the sanctity of the substances that animate the material realm. This is why 1) the prohibition against eating blood, 2) the commandment to cover it with earth, and 3) the consequences related to the slaughter of an animal that is not brought as a sacrifice follow the descriptions of the Yom Kippur service. When someone kills an animal without an appropriate purpose, outside of the appropriate space, they are succumbing to the same energies that drive people to commit murder. In Kabbalistic teachings, this is a phenomenon known as “the reversal of mediums”[6] (achlifu duchtaihu), which is a thought-provoking idea to ponder especially in connection to the discussions from last week around the name (Adam) – a name that also means ‘to be red.’

In the first Chassidic discourse (maamar) delivered by Rabbi Menachem Schneerson on the night he became Rebbe (January 1951), he told of an incident concerning the Alter Rebbe[7] whereby he left his synagogue in the middle of a service to chop wood, cook soup, and attend to a woman whom had just given birth.[8] Years later, at a public speech, the Rebbe expounded upon this story, describing how the Alter Rebbe extended this act of kindness on Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year. This was obviously unusual, as these types of activities (such as cooking and cleaning, etc.), are strictly forbidden on the holiday. But the Rebbe was using this story to relate a message about the importance of Ahavat Yisrael – love of one’s fellow – a mitzvah that we read about this week in Parashat Kedoshim, which is Hebrew for “holy.” In 19:18 the verse states: “you shall love your fellow as yourself” – a precept that Rabbi Akiva said is the fundamental rule of Torah.[9] “Hillel paraphrased the commandment, saying: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to others’ (Shabbat 31a).”[10] The emphasis that the Rebbe was making about this commandment (by using this story about the Alter Rebbe) is that Ahavat Yisrael, love of one’s fellow, was not to be seen as a just one mitzvah amongst many mitzvot – but that it supersedes all others.[11] One thing to note about this rule of Torah is that’s it’s not easy to love your fellow. It’s much easier to love humanity as a whole, or to love the idea of a unified planet. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty, with your neighbor that keeps erratic sleeping hours, or that ill-behaved community member – the Torah commands us to love even people whom it is hard to love. In terms of our environmentalism, this is a powerful idea, because it concerns acting locally and thinking locally. It’s easy to love the idea of a sustainable future, or a group of people halfway around the world that we have no physical connection with. But when we work within a community, with people whom are in our lives every day, that get on our nerves and push our buttons – when we can love them, then the global takes care of itself. To be quite frank, if this is the only thing you remember from the Torah, and you truly internalize it and put it to practice, then that would be enough to instigate a considerable amount of ecological change.

There are two additional commandments given in Parashat Kedoshim that have innate environmental, and social justice, intendment. In 19:9 we read about the positive commandment to not reap the corners of one’s field – that these are portions of the harvest that are to be left for the poor and for the stranger/traveler.[12][13] And in 19:11 we read “You shall not steal, you shall not deny falsely, and you shall not lie to one another.”[14] In essence, we are commanded to ensure honest dealings with others, and to never allow for the degradation of our ethics in business dealings or elsewise. We don’t often think about business dealings as a spiritual practice, but one can argue that these commandments are an extension of the commandment to love one’s fellow. I do think that these mitzvot speak for themselves; deeds that range from the tithing of produce to the purchase of goods that are “Fair Trade” are Toraic in principle. It is something for us collectively to meditate on, whenever we are purchasing food or clothing, as it is our duty to ensure that we are upholding the ethics and standards that the Torah outlines for us. I hope that’s all I need to say on this point.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Finding a balance between our spiritual and material obligations, communal and individual varieties of atonement, loving one’s fellow, and the environmental intendment that are innate to mitzvot

Listen to this Podcast


Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Telushkin, Joseph. Rebbe: The life and teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the most influential Rabbi in modern history. Harper Collins, 2016.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.679 [2] [R’ Elazar ben Azariah] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.636 [3] The yearly ritual of kaporot is performed within some communities. This is done anytime between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (a period of time known as the “Ten Days of Repentance”). A chicken is swung around the head three times, before it is slaughtered and then given to charity. [4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.638 [5] “The primary atonement is effected by the blood service, not by the confession.” (Scherman, p.638) [6] [7] Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi [8] Telushkin, Rebbe: The life and teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, audio book, Part 3 (Chapter 5) [9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.661 [10] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.661 [11] Telushkin, Rebbe: The life and teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, audio book, Part 3 (Chapter 5) [12] [13] [14]

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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