At the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the double parsha of Tazria/Metzora, Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring a “strange fire” that Hashem did not command, and a fire from the alter kills them immediately. The Torah interrupts the story of the dedication and its aftermath for five chapters that discuss various aspects of who is tahor (ritually pure) and who is tamei (ritually impure and unable to participate in the korbanot [sacrifices] at the Mishkan). With no obvious transition, we return to the chronology in Parshat Acharei Mot (ch. 16) with the laws of the Kohen Gadol’s (High Priest) atonement service on Yom Kippur. The Torah adds a prohibition on bringing korbanot any place outside the Mishkan, followed by the well-known section on forbidden marriages and sexual relationships. We read these chapters every year on Yom Kippur. (Many Conservative synagogues substitute chapter 19, from Parshat Kedoshim, for chapter 18 at mincha [afternoon prayer service] on Yom Kippur.)
With chapter 18, the Torah changes focus completely, with a rapid recitation of mitzvot. Indeed, Parshat Kedoshim alone contains 51 of the 613 mitzvot (8.3 percent of the annual total), with an underlying message that we should be kadosh (dedicated to a higher purpose) because Hashem is kadosh. The phrase “Ani Hashem” (or “Ani Hashem Elokeichem”), which appears only three times in the first 17 chapters of Vayikra, appears more than 50 times in the remainder of the Sefer.
A few observations help one understand the role of Acharei Mot/Kedoshim in the Torah. We read this double portion at almost the mid-point between Pesach and Shavuot — near the very middle of our counting of the Omer. A key reason for counting the Omer each year is to show the connection between Pesach and Shavuot; in brief, Pesach marks our physical freedom, but we do not receive complete freedom until Shavuot, when we receive the Torah.
Acharei Mot/Kedoshim is also essentially the very center of the Torah. A common stylistic format for the Torah is a chiastic structure, of the form A-B-C-D-C’-B’-A’, where A and A’ contain thematically related material, as do B and B’, and C and C’, etc. The result of this structure is to focus attention on the middle section: here it is D.
The books of Shemot and Vayikra are connected in a large chiastic structure that connects all the mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael received from their arrival at Har Sinai through the end of Sefer Vayikra. (Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s dvar Torah on Behar-Bechukotei, in the archives at tanach.org, presents the details very clearly.) The center of this long chiastic structure is the dedication of the Mishkan, plus the laws of who is tamei and may participate, culminating in the dedication ceremony on Yom Kippur (ch. 16-17). In short, Acharei Mot is the central focus of Shemot and Vayikra, and one can therefore understand why we specifically read these chapters on Yom Kippur.
The Torah immediately goes on to the key theme of the remainder of Sefer Vayikra: we should be kadosh because Hashem is kadosh. G-d commanded Moshe to present these mitzvot to “Kol Adat Yisrael,” to the entire congregation of Israel. Previously, the only two times when G-d had Moshe present commands to “Adat Yisrael” were regarding the Pesach offering and the construction of the Mishkan. At Har Sinai, G-d commanded Adat Yisrael to be a kingdom of kohanim and a goy kadosh (holy nation) (Shemot 19:6). In Kedoshim, G-d demands that we emulate Him by going beyond the word of the mitzvot to a higher level of spirituality. This demand is consistent with the focus of Jews on tikkun olam, working as partners with G-d to improve the world.
On Shabbat Devarim, right before Tisha B’Av, we read Isaiah’s rebuke to the people that G-d doesn’t need the people’s korbanot or prayers — rather, the people should seek justice, strengthen victims, and help widows and orphans. In stressing these themes, Isaiah was reminding the people of the message of Kedoshim, at the heart of the Torah: the central message of the process of personal growth each spring that brings Jews from physical freedom to full freedom as we receive the Torahon Shavuot.
By Alan A. Fisher
Alan A. Fisher, a retired economist with a government agency, is the membership chairman of the American Dahlia Society. He produces and shares a weekly compilation of divrei Torah (Potomac Torah Study Center) and davens most often at Beth Sholom in Potomac, Maryland.