Skip to content

Parashat Acharei Mot 5779 — 05/04/2019

Parashat Acharei Mot 5779 — 05/04/2019

Vayikra 16:1-18:30

Our parashah contains a fairly detailed description of the Yom Kippur Temple service; the Talmud in tractate Yoma elaborates, based, in its earliest layers, on observation of actual practice. Of course the Temple ritual, while it might have created at atmosphere in which people could do t’shuvah (“repentance,” but more literally “return”), it remains an outer shell – real t’shuvah is an intensely inner process of taking a hard look at oneself and one’s relationship with Gd, and drawing the necessary conclusions.

Rambam identifies vidui / confession, as the outward act that an individual does in the process of t’shuvah. T’shuvah itself is an inner process of redirecting the path of our life, returning to Gd and to the path Gd has laid out for us for our own good and for the good of the cosmos. But then why do we need confession?  Paraphrasing R. Yosef B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), his own teacher, R. Goldin lists two major reasons for the need for verbal confession of one’s sins (unlike other religions, this confession need not involve anyone other than the penitent and Gd):
1. “Confession serves to complete the t’shuva process. Verbalization forces the penitent to crystallize both his remorse over the past and his commitment to future change.” In other words, verbal confession takes an abstract, and often fuzzy, regret and concretizes it, thus allowing us to deal with it in a forthright way.
2. “By forcing us to admit the facts, confession robs us of the ability to fool ourselves. Through verbalization we compel ourselves to examine not only our sins, but also the nature of our sins. Acts that we might have written off as unintentional are scrutinized anew and we are compelled to admit motivations that we would have rather ignored.” Verbalization, being something concrete and objective, seems to create enough distance, enough objectivity, that we can do what we must, which is peel back the layers of rationalization that the mind throws up to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth.

So far, so good. Now the question arises, what about the confession the High Priest makes over the scapegoat?  This is a confession for all Israel and the scapegoat is to “carry” the sins of the entire nation to the wilderness. Rambam writes of the goat sent to Azazel (the se’ir hamishtale’ach or “scapegoat”):

Since the se’ir hamishtale’ach brings acquittal for all of Israel, the High Priest confesses over it in the name of all Israel…
   The se’ir hamishtale’ach brings acquittal for all the sins mentioned in the Torah, the venial and the grave, those committed with premeditation and those done unintentionally, those which become known to their doer and those which do not – all are granted acquittal by means of the se’ir hamishtale’ach, provided only that the sinner has repented.
   If, however, he has not repented, the scapegoat can bring acquittal only for the lighter sins. (Hilchot T’shuva 1:2)

But if atonement is based on repentance, and repentance is an individual affair, what good can the scapegoat do? R. Goldin writes:

The Rav [RAR: R. Soloveitchik] answers these questions with a bold, imaginative stroke. Based on sources in the Written and Oral Law, he posits that on Yom Kippur two essential types of atonement are potentially granted to man: individual and communal.

Individual expiation is open to each and every Jew who is strong enough to undergo a full, heartfelt process of return. Such acquittal is achieved in solitary fashion as the penitent plumbs the depths of his own heart and soul.  Communal atonement, however, is different. This expiation is granted globally to Knesset Yisrael, the community of Israel, “in its entirety and as a separate mystical kind of self, as a separate entity in its own right… .” Once granted to the collective, this acquittal is automatically afforded to each individual who remains linked to Knesset Yisrael through an unbreakable bond.

The Rav has identified in the concept of Knesset Yisrael that there is a kind of collective consciousness of the Jewish people, and that this collective consciousness has its unique relationship with Gd. I would argue that every people, every community, even every family has a collective consciousness. You can feel it in different cities. New York feels very different from Los Angeles.  Cross a national border and you can feel the difference immediately, even the border between, say, New York and Ontario – besides having to stop and show your passport, you sense in the air that things are different. Different peoples have different languages, different cultures, different environmental challenges, and different ways of relating to the transcendent.

This collective consciousness arises from the behavior and interactions of the individual consciousnesses that make it up, perhaps in a way like an individual human’s consciousness is supported by the behavior and interactions of all the cells that make up his body. So the individual affects the collective consciousness of the group, and the collective consciousness reflects back and affects the individual. The collective does t’shuvah via the individual t’shuvah of its members, but also aids that individual t’shuvah by creating an atmosphere of t’shuvah, as we all feel in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Like a laser, the activity of each individual stimulates coherent activity in the other individuals until the entire medium rises in one mighty coherent wave. When we do that as a society with our t’shuvah, Mashiach will ride that wave into the world.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Acharei Mot

In Parashat Acharei, Gd commands that only the High Priest may enter the Holy of Holies and he may only do that once a year, on Yom Kippur.

This raises the question: May only the High Priest experience the Full Presence of Gd? And may he only experience that once a year?

Compare this commandment with the commandment in the next parashah, Kedoshim, in which Gd says, “Be thou Holy, for I Am Holy.”

This commandment says that we, all of us, must always be Holy, not just the High Priest and not just once a year.

Looking at the commandment in Acharei from this point of view, we can see that, although the Tabernacle and all its details, including the Holy of Holies and the actions of the priests and the High Priest, were specifically designed by Gd to assist us in being aware of His Presence, it is possible for us to be fully aware of His Presence wherever we are and whoever we are.

The 10 Commandments/Statements/Utterances/Words give us very clear guidance for our behavior so that we can act and be Holy. Particularly, the commandment/statement/utterance/word, “Thou shalt love the Lord, thy Gd, with all thy heart, all thy soul, and all thy might” and, very close to it, the commandment which appears in Parashat Kedoshim, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

To me and to probably all of our congregation the guidance to love Gd has resulted in our doing our best to live our life routinely and moment-to-moment in an innocent, non-straining way that allows our Nature, which is Joy and Love, to be more and more deeply experienced and more and more deeply expressed in every feeling, thought and action.

Living this way we are becoming increasingly aware of Gd-Totality as all there is and therefore our love becomes more and more, Love, the same Love that Gd Is; and Joy, the same Joy that Gd is. Thus our love is naturally directed to Gd, without our having to think about it, no matter where our attention may be: the love is not a mood, it is a natural experience of Gd as Love within Whom our individuality is a flow of Gd’s Love, flowing within Gd, naturally experiencing more and more of the Wholeness and Uniting with Gd, fully remembering that we are an Expression of Gd — Gd is all there is.

The guidance to love our neighbor as our selves, naturally resulted in our doing our best to know our selves more and more fully as Self, the One Self and thus, to love our selves more and more fully, to increase in our love for every aspect of existence, every individual expression of Gd, flowing within Gd, including our neighbors.

Although it will be nice, great, wonderful! when the Temple is rebuilt and we have its assistance in being aware of Gd’s Presence, Kedoshim commands us all that we should be Holy, in and out of the temple, whatever our status in the community.

Through our desires to love Gd, love our neighbor, be Holy and through the actions we take to fulfill these desires we in our community are becoming increasingly aware of Gd’s Presence as Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omni-Joyful, Omni-Loving and our behavior becomes increasingly naturally loving and Loving, Holy, Holy, Holy!, more and more completely united with Gd, One.

Thank You, Gd!

Baruch HaShem