Towards the end of Parshat Acharei Mot, the Torah delineates the rules and regulations prohibiting certain unions within a family. These laws, straight forward and perhaps even intuitive, begin to develop the Torah's model of a standard family relationship.
Towards the end of Parshat Acharei Mot, the Torah delineates the rules and regulations prohibiting certain unions within a family. These laws, straight forward and perhaps even intuitive, begin to develop the Torah's model of a standard family relationship. They demand our living differently from the lifestyles of the Egyptians and the Canaanites, thereby imposing a certain character on the simple family structure within the Jewish nation. "None of you shall come near any of his close relatives to uncover nakedness; I am Hashem" (Leviticus 18:6). The continuation specifies all the relatives who are included under this prohibition, but, in general, these laws aim at distinguishing the life of the Jewish nation from and elevating it above the behavior and practice of the other nations (ibid. 18:3).
Although these laws set up a framework, they fail to offer broad guidelines to creating and maintaining the proper family atmosphere. Accordingly, in the following chapter, amidst many laws demanding of each person to behave with respect and decency, the Torah commands us to revere our parents (ibid. 19:3). This single imperative establishes a hierarchy of authority and respect critical to a healthy family relationship. Each person within a family has a specific role and must recognize the appropriate leaders. In sum, the Torah lists the rules and offers direction for creating a strong family bond.
In fact, it seems that in the following chapter, the Torah assumes this bond to be capable of providing the incentive to even defy a Divine command in order to maintain the family unit. In chapter 20, Hashem warns the Jewish people from worshipping the idol named Molech which entailed child sacrifice. If a man chooses to offer a child as a sacrifice, Hashem Himself promises to exact a punishment on him. However, surprisingly, Hashem expects to punish not only him but also his family in the punishment. "I Myself will concentrate My attention upon that man and his family, and I will cut off from among their people both him and all who follow him in going astray after Molech" (ibid. 20:5). The theological problem raised by including "his family" in the punishment for his personal transgression bothered Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, a 14th century Torah commentator and rationalist. In response, he reinterpreted the meaning of the word "mishpachah family" to mean "those who follow after him." He explains that this word cannot possibly mean family since "it is patently false to believe that a family will be punished because of the transgression of one member."
However, the basic translation of the text does indeed seem to specify the family unit explicitly. Furthermore Rashi, commenting on the verse, quotes a passage in the Talmud (Tractate Shevuot 39a) which justifies even punishing the family by assuming a remarkable family solidarity. "There is no family where one is a thief and the others in the family are not because they protect and cover up for each other."
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, a rosh yeshiva (dean) at Yeshiva University, noted this striking assumption where the strength of the family bond will lead a person to challenge and defy a commandment from Hashem to protect a relative. The Talmud does not admonish nor discourage the family for its unity and strength. It seems that the Talmud is merely recognizing a fact, even expecting it. A family is expected to be this strong. Unfortunately, this family will pay a price for collectively choosing to forsake the commandments for the sake of maintaining their family loyalty. Although their actions must be questioned, the intensity of their relationship cannot be overlooked. Hashem expects such an intensity from a family.
After the Torah creates the skeleton of a family with all the rules and regulations, the Torah breathes life into the body by demanding the proper respect and imposing the hierarchy of authority within a family. Finally, in chapter 20, the Torah describes an example of a family successfully implementing these guidelines in creating a close, strong family unit. In truth, this exemplifies the ideal character of a family particularly because this family defied Hashem. Only with the mutual support and internal strength could this family challenge Hashem. Had this family chosen to lead a lifestyle in accordance with Hashem's laws, they would have been equally unified. The Torah expects this unity from a family.
Throughout the Torah, the familiar term "Am Yisrael the nation of Israel" never appears. Instead, the Jewish people are referred to as "Bnei Yisrael sons or children of Israel" or "Beit Yisrael house of Israel". This is not merely a semantic note. The terminology reflects an orientation. The Jewish people are all children in the same family; we all live in the same house. Accordingly, the loyalty we naturally develop in a family must find expression in our relationship with Hashem. Seeing the family as a paradigm, we should strive to intensify our loyalty to and relationship with Hashem. In this sense, the family truly rules.
Micah Gimpel, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and Yeshiva University, is studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel.
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