Parshat Acharei Mot: Yom HaKipurim

Yom Kipur and community harmony

For on this day you will have your sins atoned so that you will be cleansed. Before Hashem you will be cleansed from all your sins. (VaYikra 16:30)

Parshat Acharey Mot discusses the Temple service of Yom HaKipurim. Our passage explains that observance of Yom HaKipurim atones for the sins of the people. The Talmud explains that Yom HaKipurim cannot atone for all sins. Sins that a person commits toward another individual are not nullified by Yom HaKipurim. The sinner must appease the victim of the sin. For instance, assume one spreads gossip about an individual. The service of Yom HaKipurim, observance of the fast, and fervent prayer cannot atone for this sin. The sinner must seek the forgiveness of the victim.

This law is derived from our passage. The passage states that Yom HaKipurim atones for a person’s sin that are before Hashem. The Sages understand the term “before Hashem” as defining a class of sins. Sins that are before Hashem – committed against Hashem – are eradicated by Yom HaKipurim. Sins that are before other individuals – committed against other people – are not erased by Yom HaKipurim. The sinner must first appeal to the injured person.[1]

The Talmud also explains that even a person who only insults another individual without causing any physical harm must seek forgiveness. This follows from the lesson derived from our passage. The insult constitutes a sin against another individual and the sinner must seek the forgiveness of the insulted person. However, the Talmud does not quote our passage to support this law. Instead, the Talmud cites a pasuk from Mishle to support its ruling. As interpreted by the Sages, the passage reads, “If you have made an agreement with your neighbor and a conflicting agreement with a stranger, or if you have been ensnared by your words, trapped by your statements, do the following my son and be saved: Because you have come into the hand of your neighbor pay him his money and appease your neighbor.” According to the Talmud, the passages describe the proper response to two types of conflict. If a person has wronged his neighbor in a monetary matter, he should make restitution. If he has spoken harshly to his neighbor, he must appeal to his friend for forgiveness.[2] This raises an obvious question. Why does the Talmud not rely on our passage?

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik Zt”l provides an interesting answer to this question. He offered his response in the context of a personal experience. Rav Chaim had ruled against a butcher in a monetary dispute. The butcher felt that Rav Chaim’s ruling was flawed and became very angry. In his fury, he called Rav Chaim a thief. Rav Chaim tried to calm the litigant. He was unsuccessful and the butcher continued to ridicule him. Finally, Rav Chaim told the butcher that he was insolent and ejected him from the court.

On the eve of Yom HaKipurim Rav Chaim sought out this butcher. He appealed to the butcher to forgive him. He had insulted the butcher by calling him “insolent.” Not only did the butcher refuse to forgive Rav Chaim, he renewed his insults. He, again, accused Rav Chaim of incompetence and theft.

Rav Chaim explained to the butcher that he was not apologizing for any wrong he had committed. The butcher had acted disrespectfully. He deserved to be labeled as insolent and to be ejected from the court. Instead, he was appealing to the butcher for an entirely different reason. The observance of Yom HaKipurim requires that we reestablish fellowship within the community. Rav Chaim was not seeking forgiveness of a sin. He was seeking to renew the fraternity within the community.

Rav Chaim explained that this is the reason the Talmud provides a special passage for its ruling regarding insults. There are two possible reasons for appeasing a person we have insulted. First, if the insult is unjustified, we have sinned against this person. We cannot atone for this sin without attempting to appease the insulted person. This rule is derived from our passage. Second, the observance of Yom HaKipurim requires that we reestablish peace within the community. This can only be accomplished through seeking the forgiveness of those we have insulted or hurt. In this context, the justification for the insult is irrelevant. Even a completely justified insult causes animosity. This obligation is not derived from our passage. It requires a separate source.

The Talmud, tells us we must seek to appease one we have insulted. This ruling is not referring to a sinful, unjustified insult. Instead, the Talmud is dealing with well-deserved scorn. Even in such cases, the observance of Yom HaKipurim demands that we appease the insulted individual. This lesson is not derived from our passage. Our pasuk only discusses sinful behavior. Therefore, the Talmud relies on a passage from Mishle to support its ruling. This passage is discussing relations between neighbors and the focuses upon the importance of harmony.

Rav Chaim pointed out that this interpretation of the Talmud is supported by a ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. The Shulchan Aruch indicates that we are required to appease our neighbors on the eve of Yom HaKipurim.[3] Rav Chaim explained that this obligation is an expression of the requirement to establish peace and harmony within the community.[4]

The Torah’s approach to moderating sexual behavior

No person shall approach a close relative to commit a sexual offense. I am Hashem. (VaYikra 18:6)

The Torah prohibits sexual relations with various relatives. These prohibitions are outlined in our parasha. In addition to these prohibitions, the Torah legislates against approaching a close relative to commit these violations. What is the meaning of this injunction? Maimonides explains that this command prohibits lesser forms of affectionate contact. This includes even kissing and embracing.[5] In general, this injunction applies to even a friendly kiss or embrace shared between close relatives.

This command is often maligned. To many individuals it seems somewhat severe and even prudish. What harm can occur from an affectionate embrace? The perceived severity of the command often leads to its neglect. Unfortunately, this criticism stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the command. In fact, the mitzvah reflects a profound appreciation of human nature and psychology.

Human sexuality is based upon a very strong instinctual drive. This drive can be overpowering. It can overcome social restraint and even psychological taboo. This phenomenon creates a significant difficulty from a legal perspective. All mitzvot are given with the obvious expectation of observance. It is meaningless and foolish to legislate against a behavior that cannot be controlled. The Torah is designed to provide a practical guide to life. Every command is designed to be observed! This can create a paradox. How can the Torah legislate against succumbing to a basic drive? This problem becomes obvious when dealing with sexuality. The Torah prohibits various forms of inappropriate sexual behavior. Yet, the strength of sexual drive cannot be denied; it must be acknowledged that this drive can be overpowering.

Consider an example. Imagine two individuals deeply in love. The relationship is advanced and involves a strong sexual element. These lovers are infatuated – even obsessed – with one another. They may not be able to control their feelings toward one another. A prohibition against sexual relations may prove ineffectual.

The Torah recognizes this paradox. Therefore, it prohibits the activities that function as the normal precursors to more intimate sexual relations. This is not because the Torah is prudish. The Torah does not assume that a friendly hug will inevitably result in a sexual encounter. However, the Torah does assume that the most intimate sexual relations are not initiated without preliminary expressions of physical intimacy. The more intimate behaviors emerge from more benign behaviors. The sexual relations represent the consummation of a process that begins more innocently.

In order to prevent sexual relations, the Torah wisely begins with prohibitions directed toward these more benign behaviors. These behaviors can be more easily controlled. Through this control, the path to more advanced sexual encounters is blocked.

Every person that will perform these disgusting acts will be cut off from their nation. (VaYikra 18:29)

Our pasuk discusses the punishment of karait – being cut off. This is not a consequence that is enforced by the court. Karait is a punishment imposed by Hashem. What is this punishment? The commentaries differ on this issue. Maimonides seems to maintain that karait refers to exclusion from the afterlife – Olam HaBah.[6] Nachmanides disagrees. He argues that the term karait has three different meanings. The appropriate interpretation of the term is determined by its context. Sometimes, the Torah refers to a person experiencing karait. According to Nachmanides, this means that the person dies young and does not live a normal lifespan. This consequence is directed against the material element of the human being. The sinner’s soul is not punished. Upon death, the soul partakes of the afterlife. At other times, the Torah refers to the karait of the soul. This means that the soul of the person does not experience the afterlife. After this sinner dies, the soul is destroyed. This consequence is strictly spiritual. The sinner may live a long a prosperous life. However, all existence ends with death. Finally, sometimes the Torah states that a person will surely be cut-off. This emphasis communicates that the sinner will experience both the material and spiritual forms of karait. This person will die prematurely and also not experience the afterlife.

Nachmanides observes that the Torah never explicitly discusses the reward of Olam HaBah. Yet, the Torah tells us that certain individuals are punished with karait – exclusion from the afterlife. Of course, it is true that the punishment of karait implies the existence of the afterlife. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that the Torah discusses the negative – the punishment of karait and not the positive – the reward of Olam HaBah. Nachmanidies explains that the Torah only elaborates on rewards or punishments that involve some miraculous element or are at least counterintuitive. However, rewards or punishments that are natural, expected outcomes do not require discussion. Therefore, the Torah elaborates on the material rewards we are promised for observing the commandments. This is because these rewards represent a subtle miracle. Any such reward requires that Hashem interfere in the natural chain of cause and effect. For example, Hashem promises that our observance of the Torah in the Land of Israel will result in abundance and prosperity. This is not an outcome that is consistent with the laws of nature. Hashem must manipulate nature to produce this outcome. A hidden miracle is involved. Therefore, the Torah specifies this reward.

Similarly, the Torah does not discuss Olam HaBah. This is because this reward does not involve any miracle. The soul of the human being is not material. It is a spiritual element. The demise of the material body does not destroy the spiritual soul. Furthermore, there is no reason for a purely spiritual entity to ever cease to exist. Material objects can degenerate. However, there is no reason for the natural degeneration of a strictly spiritual entity. Therefore, the eternity of the soul is a consequence of its very nature. There is no need for the Torah to elaborate on this reward.

However, spiritual karait is not a natural event. Hashem interferes with the “natural” outcome of death. He destroys the soul of the sinner. He deprives the soul of the existence that it was capable of achieving. Therefore, this punishment is noteworthy as a deviation for the expected and natural. It deserves mention and elaboration.[7],[8]

[1] Mesechet Yoma 85b.

[2] Mesechet Yoma 87a.

[3] Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 606:1.

[4] Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, Perech Mateh Ahron, volume 1, p 186.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam /Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Lo Ta’aseh 353.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 8:1.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 18:29.

[8] Nachmanides comments are consistent with his position that every reward and punishment implies a “hidden” miracle. This is his intended message in his comments on Shemot 13:16. In these oft quoted comments he states, “A person has no portion in the Torah of Moshe our Master unless he accepts that all of our matters and affairs are miraculous and are not expressions of nature or chance occurrence – whether these relate to the multitude or individual.” If these comments are considered in isolation, without reference to Nachmanides’ overall outlook as expressed in his commentary on Chumash, the reader can conclude that Nachmandies denies the existence of natural law – at the very least in regard to the affairs of the Jewish people. However, a more comprehensive study of Nachmanides’ commentary provides a clearer understanding of his intention in these comments.

Nachmanides discusses the issue that is the subject of the above comments on other occasions – for example: Beresheit 17:1 and Shemot 10:2. He explains the blessings received for observance of the Torah and the punishments for its disregard all involve miracles. The Torah tells us that if we observe its commandments, we will enjoy prosperity. This prosperity is not the result of a natural causal chain of events. Instead, Hashem intervenes in nature and orchestrates a prosperity that would not have occurred otherwise. Similarly, our disregard of the Torah will result in experiencing afflictions. These afflictions are expressions of providence and as such are the result of Hashem’s intervention into the natural causal pattern. These miracles are not readily evident. Nonetheless, these rewards and punishments reflect providence operating on a subtle, invisible level.

Nachmanides defines as a miracle any intervention into the natural causal chain. Therefore, every expression of providence – no matter how subtle – is a miracle. This is his message in his comments on Shemot 13:16. The existence of miracles is a fundamental premise of the Torah. It is the basis of the rewards and punishments described by the Torah. Denial of the reality of miracles will result in rejection of the Torah’s promises of reward for observance and its warnings of punishment for disregard of the commandments. Nachmanides also notes that miracles are testimony to Hashem’s omnipotence which in turn demonstrates that He created the universe over which He exercises His dominion.

Nachmanides explains in his comments on Devarim 11:13 that providence does not guide every event in our lives. Instead, many events whether positive or tragic are the result of nature blindly running its course. Providence expresses itself in the rewards of the righteous and the punishments of the wicked.

Nachmanides regards the laws of nature as an expression of Hashem’s infinite wisdom and kindness. In his comments on Shemot 25:24, he explains that Hashem does not disregard the natural law that He fashioned and created even when performing a miracle. Instead, He performs His miracles in a manner that minimizes His intervention into and conflict with these laws. In Devarim 18:9, Nachmanides explains that the Torah teaches us to respect the system of nature that Hashem created. This is the basis for the prohibition against cross-breading and related activities.

In short, the contention that Nachmanides denies the existence of a natural order or that he believes that all events in our lives are expression of Hashem’s direct and immediate providence is based upon an incomplete reading of his commentary. In other writings, he discusses this issue even more extensively – including his commentary on Sefer Iyov (Job).

The position there is no natural law is reflected by certain passages of the Talmud if they are understood on a simplistic basis. The classical Sages from the period of the Geonim and Rishonim were masters of the Talmud and tradition. They are the scholars most qualified to interpret the meaning of difficult homiletic sections of the Talmud and Midrash. None of these Sages conclude that the Torah denies the existence of a natural order and accepts the position of comprehensive providence permeating every event in our lives. In fact, in terms of Jewish scholarship, this idea represents a radical departure from the perspective shared by all of these Sages. Like Nachmanides, they regarded the natural order as compelling testimony to the wisdom and majesty of Hashem and appreciation of this system as a means of drawing closer to Hashem.