By Rabbi Ariel Abel
This reading contains two main parts: atonement and sexual relations.
The topic of atonement starts off with a mention of the two sons of Aaron who died after making an offering not prescribed by Moses. Divine fire burst forth and consumed them. On the most joyful day of the inauguration of the Sanctuary, tragedy struck. It is against this background of tragedy on a day of celebrations that the scenario of Yom Kippur is played out.
Last week, the first Jewish woman in a same sex marriage was featured in the press. In this week’s reading, the Torah clearly forbids sexual relations between two men. The rabbis therefore reserved the official legitimisation to heterosexual marriage, even though the Torah only clearly stated its objection to male intercourse.
Moralists from the 21st Century struggle with the Torah’s approach, which runs contrary to the most modern expectations, but which unapologetically promotes heterosexual family units over alternative lifestyles.
In a more minor section of this week’s reading, the centrality of the sanctuary is stressed – sacrifices must be brought centrally, and not in other locations. Until Solomon’s Temple was brought, there was leeway to bring certain sacrifices off-site. From the second century BCE, there was a Jewish Temple in Elephantine, Egypt, called the Temple of Onias.
The rabbis of the Mishna recognised the validity of some sacrifices brought there. The Jews identified Mount Moriah, and the Samaritans Mount Gerizim as the central location chosen by God.
Another topic is the slaughter of birds and undomesticated animals. Perhaps the slaughter of wild beasts and birds would be felt more lightly by a farmer than the death of a domesticated animal. Therefore, we are asked to show wild animals respect and cover the blood spilled at the time of slaughter with soil.
This year, Acharei Mot is the Shabbat preceding Pesach, Shabbat HaGadol – the Great Shabbat. Of the many reasons offered for this name, the most convincing is that on this day the Israelites took a sheep and set it aside for slaughter. This was an act of great courage, as the sheep was culturally representative of Khnoum, the Egyptian god-creator of children.
The Israelites, who prized their children, were thereby rejecting idolatry and preparing themselves to leave slavery and assume freedom of both body and mind.
• Rabbi Ariel Abel is consultant to the Abrahamic Ethical Curriculum project and coaches in law, business and management.