Becoming Pure – Parashat Acharei Mot
Why are we talking about Yom Kippur now?
This week’s parsha, Acharei Mot gives us the commandments related to observing the Day of Atonement.
“And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made to purify you of all your sins and you shall be pure before Adonai.” (Leviticus 16:29-30)
These verses show up between much longer passages about arcane rituals of purification and detailed prohibitions regarding sexual relations. What strange bookends for a set of instructions about how to observe our holiest day of the year. Yet, of course nothing is random in the Torah. So, there must be a reason behind placing the description of the rituals of Yom Kippur at exactly this point in the Torah.
When we look at the commonalities between the different elements of Acharei Mot, we see two intertwined themes emerge. Acharei Mot is about creating purity. Purity of space. Purity of body. Purity in relationships. In order to define what is pure, one has to also define what is not pure. So, our parsha also sets boundaries. It helps us come to understand where pure space begins and where it ends. It helps us distinguish between when the body is pure and when it is tainted – both physically and spiritually. It classifies which relationships are sacred and which are abhorrent.
What is curious about the definitions given in Acharei Mot is how they differ from those given in previous parshiot. In earlier sections of Torah, in order for a human body to be considered pure, it had to be clear of any wounds or imperfections. Similarly, in order for an animal to be worthy of sacrifice, it had to be free of any blemishes. No such restrictions or expectations are articulated in this parsha. Acharei Mot offers us a much more inclusive vision of what it means to achieve a state of purity. Purity is no longer about achieving perfection.
Rather, purity is about both the state of the body as well as a state of mind. In this parsha we see that the body, the spirit and the mind are always in flux, moving on a spectrum between opposing states of purity and impurity. Neither state is permanent. There is always a means of return to purity for all.
Yom Kippur offers us that path of return. Yom Kippur is the time when we all are expected to do that work of returning to purity, returning to God. If we look back at those verses above, Leviticus 16:29-30, and pay attention to the Hebrew, we notice an important factor in this process that is not visible in the English.
These verses are directed to the whole collective community, Israelite and non-Israelite alike. The words are grammatically in second person plural, as if to say, “you all, or y’all.”
“For on this day atonement shall be made to purify y’all of all y’all’s sins and y’all shall be pure before Adonai.”
Additionally, the Torah recognizes that the members of the community are different. The text recognizes that some are Israelite and some are not.
“…And y’all shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among y’all.”
The Torah is inclusive of the diversity of the people in the community.
Thus, Yom Kippur is that time when we work together to find purity of body, mind, spirit. Doing that work together creates space and acceptance for everyone to participate each in their own way. Each person will find themselves at a different place on the spectrum between impurity and purity. Some will have a longer path to walk to reach purity. Some may do their work of purification in a different way than others. Some may need assistance and some may help carry others along the way. Regardless, the community reaches that place of purification together.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE teaches at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, California. Laura is currently serving as the president of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators. In her free time, Laura is pursing a doctorate in Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School of Graduate Education. She lives in Fresno, CA with her husband Rabbi Rick Winer; they have two young adult son. During This year, Shabbat Acharei Mot falls on one her favorite weekends of the year, when she and her husband serve as rabbinic faculty at the Jewish Learning Works Special Needs Family Camp.