A Lesson in Contrasts

04 May 2016

Upon first glance, Parshas Acharei Mos appears to be extremely disjointed, for the first three aliyos of the parshah describe Avodas Yom Ha-Kippurim, the spectacular Yom Kippur Service in the Beis Ha-Mikdash, while the rest of the parshah addresses aveiros (sins) of desecration, such as sacrificing sanctified animals in unholy locations rather than in the Beis Ha-Mikdash, consuming blood, illicit relations and Molech service. (The Ramban [on Vayikra 17:11-12] explains that consuming blood is a desecration insomuch as blood represents the soul, which is of God and which should be used in His service, rather than consumed by Man.)

Whereas the parshah commences with a portrayal of Avodas Yom Ha-Kippurim, which is the apex of kedushah, it concludes with that which is decidedly quite unholy and even grotesque. How do the first and latter sections of the parshah fit together?

This question can be answered by posing another question: Why is Avodas Yom Ha-Kippurim featured in our parshah at all? One would expect it rather to appear in Parshas Emor or in Parshas Pinchas, where the various korbonos of the Moadim (Festivals) are presented. Why does Avodas Yom Ha-Kippurim instead appear in the middle of Sefer Vayikra, disconnected from the presentation of all other korbonos in Sefer Vayikra?

The answer is that Avodas Yom Ha-Kippurim is not only a sacrificial regimen. Rather, it represents the ultimate purification of Man, as he draws close to Hashem on Yom Kippur and is cleansed and renewed. Since the Torah just described in Parshas Metzora the halachic cleansing and renewal of people with various contaminations, the Torah now proceeds to address large-scale spiritual cleansing and purification. This is why Avodas Yom Ha-Kippurim appears in the Torah precisely now, immediately after Parshas Metzora.

Taking this message forward, Avodas Yom Ha-Kippurim represents Man at his best, approaching the level of malachim (angels) and climbing to connect with Hashem in ultimate kedushah. At the same time, Man is required to actively appreciate his holy ascent and his rising above the mundane and elevating himself toward a unique encounter with the Divine; such an appreciation can only be obtained by Man realizing his true vulnerability and the extent to which he can descend and debase himself. Only with an appreciation of his potential for spiritual degradation and his converse ability to achieve spiritual greatness is Man’s growth truly meaningful and impactful.

This is the message of the unusual structure of Parshas Acharei Mos, as the Torah instructs us to contrast the ascent of Yom Kippur with the spiritual challenges and failings that appear in the latter part of the parshah, for by vividly considering the misuse and distortion of kedushah in the latter part of the parshah can one appreciate and internalize the opportunity for genuine spiritual elevation and striving toward kedushah in the earlier part of the parshah.

The importance of contrast and its contribution to properly appreciating the gifts of spiritual elevation, and of Torah and Mitzvos in general, cannot be underestimated. We find that the tefillah recited upon departing from the beis medrash contrasts the lot of one who learns Torah with the lot of one who forsakes Torah study. And in our parshah, the Torah contrasts the amoral practices of the heathens of Canaan and Egypt with the virtuous conduct expected of B’nei Yisroel.

As the Mesilas Yesharim (ch. 1) explains, Man can fulfill his potential and elevate himself and his surroundings, or he can debase himself and bring down all around him. Appreciating this crucial contrast as one chooses spiritual ascent is the unifying message of our parshah. May we act upon it and merit to countenance the Shechinah and to bring the entire world under Its wings.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.