Acharei Mot, this week’s parasha, has a whole lot in it, and a lot of it is sex, sex, and more sex. Who you can, but mostly who you can’t.
But that’s not what drew my attention this week. It’s this: “Adonai spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I am Adonai your God, You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan, to which I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws….You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am Adonai” (Lev. 18:1-5) This comes after many verses about Yom Kippur, and before all those verses about sex.
What does it mean, “by which man shall live”? Surely, people were living in Egypt, living in Canaan, people who didn’t follow these commandments were living all over. Ramban (13th c Spain) says the purpose of the rules is so that people can live peacefully together, both as individuals and as nations, without killing and harming one another.
People are killing and harming each other a lot these days, in all parts of the world. It’s not because they’re not Jews, either. It’s happening by Jews, to Jews; don’t think “we” are immune, but that’s for another piece. What is it about these particular laws that, if followed, will keep people from killing and harming one another, so much so that God underlines it all with the “I am Adonai” line?
Part of it, I think, is the sex thing. That is, Leviticus has been all about boundaries, distinctions, and making sure you don’t cross those boundaries or miss those distinctions. The sexual boundaries that keep one a man from “uncovering the nakedness” of one’s mother, sister, aunt, granddaughter, sister-in-law are crucial for family stability.
But it’s more about dignity, acknowledging human dignity. I am specifically NOT talking about 18:22, because I do not believe for one minute this verse in any way says homosexuality is wrong. For one interesting take on this, see Coffee Shop Rabbi’s blog: http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/2015/04/30/does-leviticus-18-forbid-same-sex-marriage/ or this excellent piece by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2004/05/rereading_levit.html
The rules prior to this Chapter 18 text deal with being able to tell when things have gone wrong, when things in the community need to be fixed through atonement and intention. Notice THIS. Fix THIS. Pay attention and make it right.
These rules to make sure you are living in a fair and just society, because, as Ramban states, that’s really what these rules are for. Create a society in which the poor and vulnerable are cared for, and the boundaries that protect individual dignity are clear. Those kinds of relationships/families/communities/nations/world can indeed be built or harmed by forgetting about individual dignity. Know what is supportive of human dignity, that which honors being made in God’s image, and do that. Always choose that.
The language of Chapter 18 of Leviticus changes; the tone changes, saying, “Stop and listen up!” What’s important is living in peace so you can acknowledge the beauty and blessings around you. Psalm 115 says, “The dead do not praise God.” So, live in a way that will do just that.