Acharey Mot

Shabbat shalom, and as the Sephardim say, Shabbat HaGadol M’vorach.  Not that I am Sephardic, but you learn all kinds of things when you go on line to prepare a d’var Torah, and one of the other things I learned has me absolutely reeling with pride.  I discovered that it is customary for the congregation to invite the wisest scholar in the community to preach on Shabbat HaGadol – and I thank you for granting me this special Koved, deserved or not. 

You do have one “out,” however, if you are rightfully skeptical about my being the wisest scholar in the community.  The reason for inviting the wisest scholar to preach on the Shabbat before Passover is that you’re thus likely to get the most thorough and accurate set of instructions on preparing your household for the holiday.  Accordingly, when Shabbat HaGadol falls takeh on the day before Pesach, the Pesach drash can be moved up a week to allow time to put into practice what you have learned.   Last week and again last night,  we did in fact learn from one of our wisest scholars, albeit Rabbi London’s lesson dealt more with emptying ourselves of spiritual chometz than with emptying our households of the more conventional kind.  In any event, I don’t have to worry about teaching Passover, and can freely move forward with my more plebian musings on Acharey Mot.

But before we look at what God told Moses after the death of his nephews, let’s take a look specifically at Shabbat HaGadol, commonly translated as the Great Sabbath.  Why davke do we call the Shabbat before Pesach the Great Sabbath?  I will shortly let you chime in on this subject, but first let me summarize the three major theories I found with the help of Reb Google, one Chasidic, one Prophetic, and one Cynical, and then put forward a theory of my own. 

The Chasidic masters relate the name The Great Sabbath to the great miracle that occurred the Shabbat before the Exodus, when God figured out how to program his first-born selection process to choose  first-born lambs among the Israelites for the Passover sacrifice, and first-born sons among the Egyptians.  The Prophetic school turns to the closing words of the special Haftarah for the Shabbat before Pesach, and the words of Malachi – Behold I send you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of the Eternal. 

The Cynical interpreters go to the minhag, the custom, of that drash by the wisest scholar.  Note that this was one of two times in the year when congregants heard a sermon – Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh HaShanah andYom Kippur was the other –and this sermon tended to go on and on with the details of clearing the house of Chometz, conducting the Seder, inspecting the Coke bottle to make sure it contained sugar and not corn syrup and had been prepared under CRC supervision, et cetera et cetera et cetera.  These Cynics thus translated HaGadol not as Great but as Long, because they knew they were going to sit in shul a long time.

My own theory is derived from the Midrash about God instructing Adam to name the animals.  Adam prepares the list and brings it to God for review and approval.  The Kaddish Boruch Hu, or the KBH as His intimates call Him, reviews the list and praises Adam for his insight and creativity, asking only one question – why did you call this one an elephant?  Well. K, Adam replies, it just looked like an elephant to me.   

When God told the Rabbis to name the Shabbatot, I theorize they took the easy way and named most of them for the Parashah they would be reading, came up with a few specials like Shabbat Shuvah and Shabbat Parah to show they weren’t slacking, and then began deliberating about this one.  We can’t name it for the parasha, Acharey Mot – after the death.  That’s such a downer, Reb Tevye said.  You’re right, Reb Yudl said, but, hey, it’s right before Pesach, this is a biggie, it’s Gadol,we have to come up with something.  If it’s such a biggie, so Gadol, Reb Tevye responded – let’s call it that!  And so it was, and is to this very day. 

As we move towards discussion of the parasha itself, let me stay for a moment on the subject of names, and specifically the name of this sedrah.  As we have noted, Plaut calls it Acharey Mot, after the death.  So too JPS, Hertz, Etz Hayim, and most of my on-line references.  But the ArtScroll Stone Commentary calls it just Acharey.  I found no discussion, in the book or on the Web, as to where the other word went – it just seems to have fallen into a moat.  Are the Modern Orthodox squeamish about death?  Were they saving money on ink?  Were they paying Rabbi Nosson Scherman by the word?  Your guess is better than mine, because I am unable to imagine.

But anyway, here we are at Erev Pesach, and our parashah starts out with a discussion of Yom Kippur, giving Aaron a full protocol for entry into the Holy of Holies.  It then segues to a riff on the scapegoat, and proceeds in the verses we read today to providing rules for sexual conduct, or more accurately, for the choice of sexual partners.

Had I been presenting this drash at Beth Emet fifty years ago, the two categories on the list of forbidden sexual partners that I will call attention to would probably have gone unnoted.  The Reform Jews of that era were too far removed from Torah study, and especially study of Leviticus, for anyone to have been likely to pick up on the taboo against sleeping with sisters, and too respectful of their clergy for anyone to have said, Hey, Rabbi Polish, how about Jacob with Leah and Rachel?  And fifty years ago, when all the world was still a closet, the injunction against lying with a man as with a woman would have seemed as obvious as the taboo against bestiality. 

Whatever might have been the case at Beth Emet bayamim hahem, the rabbinic commentators certainly picked up on the dissonance between the sisters commandment and the behavior of Father Jacob.  Nor could they cop out by saying the commandment hadn’t yet been proclaimed – basic rabbinics teaches that there is no earlier or later in the Torah.  So they came up with a double cop-out – the parasha is very clear that the Israelites are not to emulate the patterns of the Egyptians or the Canaanites when they go into the Land – nor, by implication, that of the Arameans.  It was OK for Jacob to marry Leah and later Rachel when he was living chutz l’aretz – outside the Land – but when he went home, he couldn’t have both his sister-wives living with him on the holy soil.  Hence Rachel’s early death. 

For the past thirty years, the Reform movement, to its credit, has been distancing itself from the prohibition against homosexuality.   Fortunately, we start from a position that accepts Torah as a human document, and authority as vested in the individual – so we can easily dismiss whatever no longer seems to make sense.   Our more halachically committed friends in the Conservative movement have to grapple differently with texts like this – with arguments along the line of What they must have meant is….  And of course the right wing, among both Jews and Christians, looks at the text, sees it as geschribben and thus non-negotiable, non-debatable.  Why, we might ask, as the first of our questions for discussion, can they totally set aside the commandment to stone to death the disobedient child, yet consider this one sacrosanct?

According to the instructions given to those of us who lead the Torah discussions here in Kahal,  after we have commented on the text,  we are to pose three questions for discussion. But clearly on Erev Pesach, it’s incumbent on me to pose four, so let me restate the one I just asked, but in Passover mode, and then proceed with three more issues that troubled me as I prepared this dtash.. 

1.     Mah nishtanah the situations where we take the p’shat, the straightforward meaning of the words, as binding on all of us across time and space, vs. those that we but not others dismiss and vs. those everybody dismisses? 

2.     What do you see as the kesher, the connection, between the beginning and ending sections of this sedrah – starting with Yom Kippur and concluding with sexual conduct?

3.     What do you make of the ArtScroll shortening of the name of the parasha to Acherey?

4.     Why do you think today is called Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath?













































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