Parashat Acharei-Mot 5778

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein – 20 April 2018

כִּֽי־בַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה יְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְטַהֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֹ֖ה תִּטְהָֽרוּ

For on this day he will make atonement for you, to cleanse you of all your sins before the Eternal you shall be clean.
(Leviticus 16:30)

These immensely evocative words and their accompanying music, form a key part of our liturgy on Yom Kippur. The words lifted directly from this weekly portion of the Torah offer one of the key elements of the ancient Israelite rituals that rabbinic tradition maintained.

“For on this day” (not that day as used more often in Torah) – that means Yom Kippur.

“he” – that is the High Priest. Today, there is no intermediary.

“will make atonement for you” – will offer all the sacrifices prescribed and utter the words through which God will offer you atonement. Today, it is you by observing the rites of Yom Kippur, desisting from work, spending a day of serious self-reflection together with your family and community.

“to cleanse you of all your sins before the Eternal” – so that you will be in God’s Presence clean

“you shall be clean” – but first you must insure your own teshuvah (repentance) you shall be innocent, clear of conscience.

Next you hear the haunting melody of Momabach, note that it begins with severity and concludes with a consoling lift. This stunning composition of Mombach ( guides you through the meaning the Rabbis a imbued within the words, enhancing a core rubric of our liturgy.

So much for my exegesis of this verse and you are welcome to challenge me having studied the canon of our more capable, classical exegetes. What troubles me is that one word is used twice, albeit in different conjugations. לְטַהֵ֣ר (to cleanse) and תִּטְהָֽרוּ (you shall be clean). They both have the same root verb letters tet – hey – resh. Classically, this is interpreted as one referring to atonement from God and the other as repenting from our transgressions against others human beings.

I hope that we do well repenting from our transgressions on a regular basis, not just at Yom Kippur, from our transgressions against those closest and dearest to us, our family, friends, work colleagues. But what also concerns me are those who are faceless, nameless, with no identity other than that their defining characteristic is a key motif of Judaism – a refugee, a migrant. It has troubled me ever since I stood on a murky beach looking out at a void, still water covered by a kind of grey primordial mist, no fish splashing, no bird in sight or ear. Yet the knowledge that in those very same waters further down the coast towards Libya, hundreds of refugees, migrants were drowning.

In the UK, our treatment of the ‘Windrush Generation,’ highlights periods when we have allowed inhumane treatment of those who see the UK as ‘home’ or as sanctuary. Current British society is demonstrably susceptible to such heartlessness but the backlash on this issue exemplifies the shock needed to create a renewed appreciation for refugees and migrants, who have a right to be here and / or to work.

In the week following Yom ha’Shoah, we recall the fact that the UK opened its doors to the Kindertransport and to other Jewish refugees; and like many other countries blocked the movement of many more. We mourn our 6 million murdered in the Shoah. They will not be forgotten, even those who we do not know by name.

This week, Israel will mourn (Yom Ha’Zikaron – literally the Day of Remembrance) those who died in combat to create and maintain the State to celebrate on this Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Independence Day), its 70th birthday. Whilst there are aspects of the government’s treatment of current day migrants, such as the 40,000 African immigrants who could offer so much to society but whose status is in limbo, most of Israel’s history has been one of providing sanctuary.

The State of Israel, as a community that boasts a majority who were refugees or migrants at one point in their life, has brought so much to the global family. I wish all those in the IMPJ (Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism), a hearty celebration of what already has been achieved and great strength in its desire to continually improve society by bringing Torah to Zion and God to Jerusalem.

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