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Parshat Acharei Mot / Kedoshim – Look Down!

Two of the major elements in this week’s double Torah portion (Acharei Mot / Kedoshim, Leviticus 16-20) are the Temple service for Yom Kipuur (the Day of Atonement) and the list of prohibited sexual relationships.

When we observe Yom Kippur, the Torah reading in the morning is the description of the Temple service found in chapter 16. The Torah reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur is the prohibited sexual relationships found in chapter 18.

While the first of these readings is reasonable, the second seems totally inappropriate. Yom Kippur comes at the end of the Ten Days of Repentance that begins with Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year). And this period is preceded by the month of Elul – 30 days spent preparing for the High Holidays. The afternoon of Yom Kippur is the high point of these 40 days of intense spiritual work. Do we really need to hear at this elevated moment that we are not allowed to have relations with our parents, siblings or barnyard animals?

We encounter a similar problem in Deuteronomy chapter 19 that discusses the Cities of Refuge that were set up in Israel where people who kill unintentionally can flee from relatives seeking vengeance. We were originally commanded to set up six such cities (Numbers 35:9-15).

But then, Deuteronomy 19:8-9 speaks about a time when the people of Israel will be fully observant of the Torah and God will fully expand our borders (Maimonides says this is referring to the Messianic Age) – and we are to establish three additional Cities of Refuge!

Does this make any sense? In the future Messianic utopia, there won’t be much killing going on. We might anticipate doing away with the Cities of Refuge altogether, or perhaps eliminating a few of them. But why will we need additional ones?

So, on the holiest day of the year, why do we need to be warned about incest and bestiality and why the need for additional Cities of Refuge during the Messianic Age?

These are both essentially the same problem. After 40 days of inner work and reaching lofty levels of spiritual growth on Yom Kippur, we shouldn’t need to be warned about doing things we wouldn’t consider doing on the worst of our days during the rest of the year. And in the Messianic Age where the world is living on the highest levels we certainly won’t need more Cities of Refuge for additional murders that will be taking place.

What we are dealing with in both situations is the problem of how to maintain ourselves once we’ve reached the high ground. They always show in movies someone on the ledge of a tall building hearing everyone scream, “Don’t look down!” In the physical realm this is true. If you are on a high level and are concerned about not falling down – don’t look down!

But in the spiritual realm, when you have climbed very high, the great danger is becoming complacent and thinking that you’ll be there forever. You might begin to believe all your own good press and think that you have arrived and that all your old demons have vanished forever. When the concern is maintaining the high level that has been reached, it can be very helpful to look down! Realize that there are no magical ropes holding you in place up there, and that unless you are very vigilant, you could end up doing some pretty horrible things.

By Rabbi Michael Skobac

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