Parashat Ahare Mot

All Of Our Sins

The commandment to the priests to purify themselves of sin before God reminds us to hold our leaders accountable to act ethically.

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Violent Divine retribution. The slaughter of animals. The sprinkling of blood. Sexual perversions. Arcane rituals. Shame and atonement.

These are not topics culled from "yellow journals" or television "news magazines," but rather from the Torah portion, Ahare Mot, or "after the death..." Passages such as these have often been difficult for moderns to digest, let alone difficult to comprehend.

After all, why should we care to read about how the ancient priesthood of Judaism conducted ritual sacrifices, the slaughter of animals, or how to dash blood about? And why would anyone care to read, in precise detail, about seemingly arcane rites of purification, the priestly wardrobe? And does anyone really need to be told not to engage in bestiality?

Easy to Dismiss

It is easy to respond patronizingly to such texts and to explain them away as remnants of our primitive past. But "difficult" texts like Parashat Ahare Mot contain meaning for the contemporary world--and even for social action itself.

The death referred to in the title of this portion refers to the deaths of the High Priest Aaron's sons, who were punished by God after offering up "strange" sacrifices. This portion begins with descriptions of priestly sacrificial rites, outlines priestly conduct for Yom Kippur, and details forbidden sexual acts. We no longer offer up animal sacrifices to God, but the ethical insights of this text are eternal: it is not just about ritual purity, but moral purity as well.

Most especially, Ahare Mot is concerned with the purity of leaders. The text directs Aaron, the progenitor of the Jewish priesthood, that "from all your sins shall you be clean before God."

We might imagine that Aaron, alongside Moses the leader of the Jewish people in their exodus from slavery and their journey toward revelation, would not need to be told to behave in a pure fashion. And yet not only did Aaron's sons cross the boundaries of Judaism, but Aaron himself was also a key participant in the idolatrous act of worshiping the golden calf. Leaders--even religious leaders--can clearly behave inappropriately and, unfortunately, unethically.

Even religious leaders who seem beyond reproach, the very leaders who seem to transcend the moral weaknesses of most human beings, are themselves sometimes subject to the same ethical challenges of humanity as a whole. But for many of us, including this writer, the moral failings of leaders are far more difficult to absorb than the sins of the proverbial "average Joe."

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Rabbi Charles P. Sherman

Rabbi Charles P. Sherman, D.D., has been the spiritual leader, teacher, and counselor of the Temple Israel in Tulsa, Oklahoma since 1976. Ordained in 1969 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, he is a Past-President of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis.