In this week's Torah portion, we find several commandments that seem to have very little in common. We begin with a run-down of the laws and practices of Yom Kippur, then proceeding to the prohibition of eating blood.
In this week's Torah portion, we find several commandments that seem to have very little in common. We begin with a run-down of the laws and practices of Yom Kippur, then proceeding to the prohibition of eating blood. Finally, the portion concludes with a discussion of the forbidden relationships. Disregarding the possibility that these particular commandments were haphazardly tossed together to form the Torah portion of Acharei Mot, we most certainly should be able to discover a common theme linking these varying topics.
Interestingly enough, we see that the Torah prohibits the consumption of the blood of any animal, even of those which are kosher. Thus, not only does the Torah exclude the vast majority of creatures from our diet, it even limits our scope with regard to the permissible ones. Further still, the Torah demands of us a day of total and absolute abstinence from all nourishment. The restrictions and regulations seem almost overwhelming.
Indeed, we discover a very similar structure with regard to the forbidden relations. In this week's portion, the Torah outlines for us the unsuitable mates whom we may not select as partners. However, we're not done yet. The Torah strictly regulates the relationship of even those people permitted to us. A proper union must be preceded by kiddushin, the sanctification of marriage. An unsuccessful marriage must be terminated by the giving of a get, or divorce document. Extramarital relations are viewed with disdain and disgust. And although the Torah itself does not prohibit polygamy, it has been the recommendation of the rabbis and the practice of the masses to limit ourselves to only one spouse. Thus, we see that the Torah places severe restraints and limitations on the food we eat and on our relationships.
The similarities don't end there. This week's portion is not the only time we find these two topics grouped together. In fact, the Rambam, the great medieval scholar and thinker, places the Laws of Forbidden Relations and the Laws of Forbidden Foods in the same section in his code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah. The Rambam names this section, curiously enough, Kedusha. While "kedusha" is usually translated as "holiness," many commentators note the term also connotes the notion of "separate" or "distinct." Thus, the Rambam, it would appear, wishes to convey to us that these two areas of law contain the power that enables us to separate and distinguish ourselves.
Now, the pieces are finally falling into place. When Hashem created the universe, He placed both man and beast on this planet. At first glance, man appears to be no different than any other creature. After all, both eat, both procreate, both engage in the same mundane physical activities. Are we, then, no different than the animals that roam freely out in the open? Surely, not for naught were we blessed with the gifts of speech, rational thought, and the ability to act with free choice.
However, when we allow our animal desires free reign without any restraint, we are in fact demonstrating that we are no better than our pet cat or dog. When we continue to satisfy our gastronomic cravings and concede defeat to our carnal appetite, we have reduced ourselves to a mere conglomeration of flesh and bones.
For this reason, the Torah contains so many prohibitions in the areas of food intake and relations. The Torah enjoins us to control our base desires in order to "separate" and "distinguish" ourselves from the other creations. By displaying our will power and self-discipline, we can rise above the level of mere physical beings. No wonder that after having introduced these laws in this week's Torah portion -- fasting on Yom Kippur, refraining from eating blood, and avoiding forbidden relations -- the Torah commences next week's portion with the admonition "kedoshim te'heyu -- you shall be holy and distinct," for only by sanctifying the physical aspects of our life can we achieve success in our spiritual quest as well.
Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan and alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is presently enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and University of Maryland, both in Baltimore.
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