Safegaurding the Light

Parashat Acharei Mot – K’doshim, Leviticus 16:1-20:27

Dr. D. Friedman, UMJC rabbi, Jerusalem, Israel


Leviticus is an amazing work, a book that is called “Torat HaKohanim” in many circles, that is, the book of instructions for the priests, and is written in beautiful chiastic form. Wedged into its contents is this week’s double portion.

Leviticus tells the children of Israel how to live in holiness in the Land of Israel. We can see God’s wisdom in inserting these instructions at this point in the story. Israel was preparing to enter the Land of Israel. Her national health depended upon the tribes following what God instructed them to do. The Land of Israel would not be an empty parcel: seven very pagan Canaanite nations already made their home there. Their ways, practices, and lifestyle would easily influence the tribes of Israel and seduce them into paganism if they did not closely obey the Torah.

Thus our portion instructs Israel how to live in such a way to inherit blessing, instead of reaping sorrows by falling into Canaanite customs and practices:

You must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my instructions and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. (18.3-4)

God wanted the people of Israel to be a shining light from the Land of Israel, and not for the Canaanite nations to “shine their darkness,” if you will. Moses instructs the Israelites in Deuteronomy 4:5-8:

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of instructions I am setting before you today?

For Israel to walk in her destiny, the Canaanites had to be driven out of the Land, because of their enormous, purposeful and evil lifestyle, built upon serving their demon-idols. Those nations were: Jebusites, Amorites, (the biblical idiom, “the iniquity of the Amorites”, cf. Gen. 15.16, tells us what the Amorites were known for: offending the One true God in his chosen land), Girgasites, Perizites, Hivites, “Canaanites” and Hittites.

eviticus 18:5 states: Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD. Let’s look at the Hebrew in order to understand this verse. The verb ushmartem is used, meaning “watching over, guarding something”. It is often a military term, describing what a military sentry does from his outpost. He carefully looks for any and everything that is out of the ordinary. As a sentry watches over the field, so do we watch over the instructions in the Torah to carry them out. A better translation of the rest of the verse could be a man will do them and so live. It is not an optional clause like some translations make it sound, as in “if you want to live, do them.”

This instruction is coming from a holy God to Israel. Let’s get it right: if the tribes did not act like sentries over the keeping of the Torah, the Canaanite nations would influence them, and that would dim the light that God had called Israel to be! Look at how merciful the Holy One is here: He called Israel to be a light, but he doesn’t leave the people without the knowledge of how to be that light—if you want to live, do them! And the first mitzvah of Torah that they would have kept, which would have shined a bright light this: “I am the Lord your God who liberated from you from Egypt. You will not have any other gods in my presence” (Ex. 20:2–3). So the best paraphrase of 18:5 I can think of is this: Keep my decrees and instructions, for the man who wants to live will do them!

Verse 6 then comes into our text, and instructs Israel as a nation how to live and act in a holy way: No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the LORD. The Holy One separated Israel’s sexual practices from those of the Canaanites around them, who used cult prostitutes, and did most of what we read in 18:7-20. Families were violated and people’s boundaries were violated in typical Canaanite practice. It was not to be so in Israel. Verse 24 summarizes this section of our parasha: Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. And thus we see God’s aim: to keep the tribes away from the evil that could infect them through their surroundings.

God through Moses and his scribes has just done a clear job of educating and warning the nation. In God’s great mercy, he told them all of Leviticus 18, so that they now know what they would see. They also know what they must do. And just for a final reminder, we have verse 30: Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came, and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the LORD your God.

 This is God’s teaching for Israel.  Shabbat shalom!


Stephanie Escalnate