Parashat Acharei Mot
Parashat Acharei (Mot) is the twenty-ninth weekly portion in the Torah and the sixth in the Book of Leviticus (16:1-18:30). Chapter 16 describes the special service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There is no more sacred place than the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), which contains the Ark of the Covenant. Only the High Priest is permitted to enter this room, and only on Yom Kippur.
In addition to a bull that he offers for his household and for all priests, the High Priest recites a confession for all Israel over a goat, one half of a matched pair. Its twin is sent to a cliff in the desert as a “scapegoat,” symbolically carrying away Israel’s sins. In a cloud of incense, the white-garbed High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to perform the sprinkling ceremony of the first goat and the bull in God’s presence.
In many ways, the Yom Kippur service breaks the rules of the previous portions: on no other day is incense or sacrificial blood brought into the Holy of Holies; on no other day is an offering brought to the wilderness outside the camp; on no other day does the High Priest take off his elaborate golden vestments and put on pure white ones. However, atonement is about breaking vicious cycles of sin and impurity, creating a fresh start. Indeed, except for the brief postscript of Chapter 17, stressing that the “out-there” activities of Yom Kippur are not to be imitated under any other circumstances, this passage signals the end of the laws of sacrifices and ritual purity. Henceforth, the topic of sanctity will be explored not with the precincts of the Tabernacle, but within the borders of the Promised Land.
Thus, Chapter 18 explains the very purpose of the Exodus: so that the Israelites will create a new, vibrant, life-affirming society in God’s country, one which eschews the depraved practices of both Egypt and Canaan. God’s rules and laws are designed “so that a person shall do them and live by them.” This phrase teaches that human life takes precedence over almost all commandments — a fitting lesson for a portion which begins “after the death of Aaron’s two sons.”
There are different traditions as to the portion from the Prophets. Ashkenazic Jews read the last nine verses of the Book of Amos, in which the prophet warns the Jewish people not to grow cocky in the Land of Israel. Many other nations have their own exodus stories, as it were; what makes the Israelites special is their allegiance to God. That is why God promises to punish the sinful rulers of Samaria and save the righteous among them.
Other communities read Ezekiel 22, which details the rebuke of Jerusalem, “city of blood,” for its abominations of injustice. Much like Amos almost two centuries earlier, Ezekiel promises that God will eliminate the sinners among his people and redeem the righteous.