It's Yom Kippur. The whole nation has been reflecting on their shortcomings from the previous year and planning a strategy for improvement for the coming one. Everyone is in the synagogue praying for a merciful judgment. No one is eating or drinking, no one is wearing leather shoes, and everyone is wearing white.
It's Yom Kippur. The whole nation has been reflecting on their shortcomings from the previous year and planning a strategy for improvement for the coming one. Everyone is in the synagogue praying for a merciful judgment. No one is eating or drinking, no one is wearing leather shoes, and everyone is wearing white. Our rabbis tell us that we reach a level of purity like that of angels. What words would a person expect to hear emanating from the pulpit? Considering the severity of the day, one might expect to hear words of retribution, yet we read from the Torah something that seems to be completely out of place. Doesn't it seem shocking that on Yom Kippur we read the section from this week's Torah portion about forbidden sexual relations? Why, on the holiest day of the year, are we reading about these specific prohibitions?
In his commentary on the Talmud (Tractate Megillah 31a), Rashi, the famous and popular 11th century commentator, explains that the reason we specifically read this section about forbidden relationships is because "the transgressions of the sexual prohibitions happen because the evil inclination of one's soul desires them and the desire is overwhelming." We read this specific passage since we are constantly challenged regarding promiscuity and, all too often, we falter. We need, especially at a time when we are thinking in such holy terms, to be slapped in the face, to be reminded of the situations we most often fail -- the pleasures of the body. This specific reading, considering the atmosphere of the day, should shock us, and that jolt will hopefully last throughout the year whenever we are faced with temptations.
The Talmud (Tractate Menachot 44a) relates a story that exemplifies this idea. A man who was very careful about the mitzvah of tzitzit (fringes worn on all four-cornered garments) heard that the most beautiful woman in the world happened to be a prostitute. In his weakness, he organized a time to meet her. When the predetermined time arrived, the man walked in and she was already unclothed. The temptation to act on his desires was enormous. As he removed his shirt, the fringes of his tzitzit slapped him in his face, causing him to remember the Divine prohibition and refrain from committing this illicit act. The mitzvah helped him overcome his desires.
The purpose of this reading on Yom Kippur is to give everyone a reminder that is intended to last throughout the entire coming year. The rabbis recognize the tendency to rationalize these issues of sexual relations, and they therefore demand that, at a time when we are all thinking of how to improve, we remember the sexual prohibitions. This realization is poignantly expressed by C.S. Lewis in his book The Screwtape Letters, ". . .and 'love' will be held to excuse a man from all guilt, and to protect him from all consequences. . . ."
We all need to look at the reasons why we act in certain ways and analyze our motives to see if they are noble and sincere. Everyone is a genius at rationalizing their conduct, but not everyone is sensitive enough to recognize that rationalization. The rabbis wanted to ensure that, on the day when everyone is most concerned about their daily conduct, we think of the prime example where people often justify their behavior.
Micah Gimpel, a native Atlantan and an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is currently a sophomore at Yeshiva University in New York.
Editor's Note: Interestingly, the Talmud relates that the man's actions in the story caused the woman to convert to Judaism. He later married her, consummating their relationship with complete sanctity and according to Torah law.
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