Say It Out Loud – Parshat Acharei Mot 5782

In my work with people who are curious about Judaism or learning about Jewish practice for the first time, there is often amazement at the notion that for most of our confessions, most of the time when we’re facing change or needing to unload emotionally, we don’t need a rabbi to witness it. Instead, we have moments of individual prayer that include confession in almost every Amidah outside of Shabbat. In Catholicism, confession happens out loud in a private booth with a priest, whereas in modern Judaism, confession most often takes the form of private, silent communication between the individual and God. 

Interestingly, Judaism wasn’t always like this. In the times of the Torah, the High Priest played a significant role in the act of confession for the Israelite people, and we learn about this public, spoken confession in our Torah portion this week. 

This week we read Parshat Acharei Mot, the portion that details the laws and rules for healthy relationships. It begins with the aftermath of the loss of Aaron’s sons to their own out of body experience while breaking the rules, and continues with the laws about how we’re supposed to atone for our sins on Yom Kippur. The final chapter of the text deals with appropriate and inappropriate relationships between family members.

In chapter 16 we read about the ways that Aaron would go and make the confession on behalf of all the people of Israel. You’d think that if he’s making the confessions on behalf of all the people, naturally they would’ve had to share them with him. Specifically, in verse 21, the text tells us that Aaron would place both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites. In other words, not only did the Israelites have to share their transgressions out loud with Aaron first, he then said them out loud a second time to the goat.

While sharing our missteps with a goat might not be what we picture for atonement today, it’s important to note the action required here to move forward after a transgression. This system relies on saying our confessions out loud. How often do you have a conversation inside your own head about something you regret or feel remorse about? And how often does that internal dialogue actually lead to change? If you’re like me, the change doesn’t happen unless I voice those thoughts to another human being. I’ve even tried using my dog, Stanley, as my scapegoat, but he doesn’t hold me accountable. 

Parshat Acharei Mot is a gentle reminder to each of us that in order to make real progress in ourselves, we must say the change we want to make out loud. In Judaism, there’s no longer a High Priest or even a rabbi required; any interpersonal conversation can be your stepping stone. The action of change occurs when we take our own inner voice and let others hear our intention. 

You Are the Tradition – Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5781

While we’re not currently in the season of Hanukkah, a Mishnah that I love to teach about Hanukkah comes to mind as I read this week’s Torah portions. Hillel and Shammai, the great rabbinic sparring partners, have a debate about which way to light the candles. Should you add one each night or subtract one? At the same time, the Mishnah also introduces the concept that our rabbis taught that the mitzvah of Hanukkah is (for one person to light) one candle for the household. And for those who embellish, one candle for each and every member of the house. Then Hillel and Shammai get into the debate about eight candles and their significance. 

This debate is about more than a ritual. It symbolizes our desire to assign deeper meaning to the ordinary objects we’re using. In the case of Hanukkah, the candles represent something bigger than just glowing light. They represent ourselves, our community, our world.

This week we read a double parshah, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Parshat Acharei Mot deals with what happens after Aaron’s sons have offered up “strange fire” to God and with certain forbidden relationships between human beings. The structure of this section of text pushes us to look at our relationships with both God and others and see the boundaries and intimacies of each relationship. Parshat Kedoshim deals with what is known as the “Holiness Code” that helps us to understand how we can walk in God’s ways and create a community of relationship and understanding.

In the context of these two Torah portions, we read about the way Aaron was supposed to prepare for Yom Kippur, specifically the public cleanse and purification for atonement. Aaron is to take a bull, a ram, and two goats, and wear (four) sacral linen garments. Leviticus Rabbah interprets each of these items and connects them to stories of Aaron’s past through his ancestors. The bull recalls the merit of Abraham’s offering when the messengers of God came to him. The ram is a reminder of Isaac’s readiness to be sacrificed at the Akeidah. The two goats symbolize the meal Jacob prepared for his father when he received his blessing instead of his brother. The four linen garments represent Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. In essence, the midrash reads this offering as a way for Aaron to enter into his holy work knowing that he carries on the legacy of his forebears.

This brings us back to Hanukkah and the idea that the objects aren’t just objects. They are us. This concept of hearkening back and assigning human identity is part of contemporary Judaism on other holidays as well. On Shabbat we can light two candles, as has become tradition, or we can light one candle for each person in our house. When we atone at Yom Kippur, we know that we stand in atonement with the merit of ourselves and also the merit of those who have come before us in all generations. What’s so beautiful about Judaism is that you can look at our observance and see a lot of traditions, or you can look at our traditions and see a lot of us.   

One for Me, One for You – Parshat Acharei Mot 5779


My five-and-a-half-year-old is well aware of the concept of fairness. When her little brother gets to do something she doesn’t get to do, or if someone has a slightly bigger dessert than she has, she doesn’t hesitate to let everyone know. Even when it’s just pretend play, she might set the table for her “guests” and strive to make sure there’s an equal distribution of food, plates, and chairs. Everyone gets one of whatever it is, regardless of the fact that the friends are stuffed or imaginary. What matters to children is the sense of equality. Children are marvelously quick to sense inequality in their space and often have a hard time moving forward until the equality is again restored. Whether we’re talking about personal possessions, food, or time, a sense of equality is a basic need for children and adults alike.

This week we read Parshat Acharei Mot, the portion that details the laws and rules for healthy relationships. It begins with the cleanup after the loss of Aaron’s sons to their own out of body experience while breaking the rules, and continues with the laws about how we are supposed to atone for our sins on Yom Kippur. The final chapter of the text deals with appropriate and inappropriate relationships between family members.

As Aaron is making his offering, it is described in chapter 16, verse 8 as follows: “And he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.” The goats are offered as a sacrifice, with the one marked for God going up as an offering, and the one marked for Azazel sent off into the wilderness. The meaning of Azazel is unknown, but assumed to be some kind of demon that leans toward evil or self-destruction. Despite the two opposite uses, the goat meant for God is equal to the goat that represents our earthly desires. In other words, what we give to our own earthly desires, like time, money and energy, we should also give equally in service to God, or our faith-based life.

The text is about finding the balance. When we lean too far into our earthly desires and possessions, we can find ourselves off kilter, becoming greedy, or coveting what others have. Life then becomes about what others have as opposed to focusing on the gifts that we do possess. On the other hand, when we’re too focused on our relationship with God, we might miss out on worldly connections or make decisions that are blinded by faith.

One for God, one for Azazel. One for you, one for me. Perfect equality or fairness might never exist, but the parshah this week reminds us to look for the ways in which we can bring at least some semblance of balance and order.

With God as My Accountant – Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777


As the daughter of a CPA, my childhood years were always divided into “tax season” and “not tax season.” From January 1 through April 15, it was known in my house that my mom was going to be focused on work. We would still have dinner as a family, and then she’d sit down at the dining room table, which was her makeshift tax season home office, and start clicking away on the adding machine. Her fingers moved at what I thought was lightening speed on the number pad, adding, subtracting, looking for advantages here, deductions there.

Since tax returns were due not long ago, our household earnings and expenditures are still fresh on my mind. It is a bit sobering to look at budget line items and realize what we actually spend on luxuries like dining out, coffee (because . . . Portland), and entertainment, compared to what we give to charitable causes. Of course we donate annually to various worthy organizations, but in looking back at the previous year, did these align with what we spent on our own extravagances? In other words, did I give as much as I enjoyed?

There is a balance to strike between my desire to help the world through financial contributions and my desire to enjoy myself and the fruits of my labor. This week we read a double Torah portion, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Acharei Mot picks up the narrative after Aaron’s son’s are killed for offering “strange fire” to God. The laws in this section of text deal mainly with Yom Kippur and the proper relationships we are to have in our lives. Parshat Kedoshim features the laws called the “Holiness Code,” marked with the ways in which we should respectfully treat one another in our community.

In Acharei Mot we begin with the offerings made on Yom Kippur, overseen by the high priest. We read that two goats are to be offered; one is designated for the Lord and the other for “Azazel,” which is sometimes translated as one that is “sent away,” other times as a “scapegoat.” A Hasidic commentary suggests this split teaches us that we should spend as much time, money, and energy on God’s purposes as we do on earthly pleasures. Literally, it means that these two goats are equal. In a broader sense, when we go to tally up our year, we should see a balanced ledger, especially in terms of giving to ourselves and giving to our community. Acharei Mot literally means “after death,” and Kedoshim means “holiness.” Taken together, we can ensure our holiness endures beyond this lifetime if we hold ourselves accountable to improving our world.

Out-of-Body Experience – Parshat Acharei Mot 5776

Out of Body Experience

Do you remember a time when you acted in a way that seemed outside the realm of your normal behavior? A time that might have shocked your system because it seemed so unlike your personality? I’ll give you some examples.

  • Perhaps you took a stand for something you believed in strongly even though you’re not usually the type to fight that hard.
  • Maybe you said exactly what was on your mind even if you usually try your best to filter your thoughts.
  • You were simply so ecstatic and caught up in a situation that it felt like you were momentarily on a different planet.
  • Or it might be more subtle, possibly a time when you looked back at pictures of yourself and thought “Was that even me?” because you looked so completely different.

As we go through life, there are big and small changes happening all the time. Sometimes we can’t even perceive a difference because the change is so small, minute even. Other times these changes cause us to look back at ourselves and see an alien being, someone who is totally different than who we thought we were.

Parshat Acharei Mot, this week’s Torah portion, details the laws and rules of healthy relationships. It begins with the healing after the loss of Aaron’s sons to their own out-of-body experience in breaking the rules, and it continues with the laws about how we are supposed to atone for our sins on Yom Kippur. The final chapter of the text deals with appropriate and inappropriate relationships between family members.

The part about Yom Kippur sheds light on this duality we sometimes see with big life changes or moments. Chapter 16, verse 29 reads: “And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.” The citizen and the alien? In a sense, this could refer to one person. Each of us is both a citizen and an alien. We are citizens in our regular actions, in those moments when we completely recognize ourselves. And we are aliens when we have those out-of-body experiences, when we behave in a way that seems contrary to our “normal operating procedure.”

At a deeper level, the text teaches us that the stranger inside each of us is not to be feared, but to be embraced. As distant and alien as that side can feel, it’s still part of our essential selves. Yom Kippur, the text teaches, is a time in which we are to examine ourselves as well as this “stranger.” We might find that the stranger is only strange because we don’t let our truest selves out often enough. On the other hand, perhaps that alien side is symptomatic of a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. This week’s text reminds us that human existence is a system of checks and balances. It’s not the little outbursts or the mood swings or the lines we draw in the sand that are the problem; it’s when we don’t acknowledge them that we don’t grow from them.