Parashat Acharei Mot marks a turning point in the Book of Vayikra. The Book of Vayikra is also known as “Torat Kohanim” – “The Guidebook for the Kohanim”. Indeed, the first five Parshiot in the Book of Vayikra deal nearly exclusively with topics pertaining to the daily goings-on at the Beit HaMikdash, including sacrifices, spiritual purity and impurity, as well as the consecration ceremony of the Mishkan. From the eighteenth chapter, however, the Kohanim are pretty much left behind and the Torah segues to a nearly random discussion of a gamut of mitzvot[1].

The first non-Priestly mitzvot in the Book of Vayikra concern immorality and forbidden sexual relations. These mitzvot are preceded by a rather lengthy preamble [Vayikra 18:3-5]: “Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes. You shall fulfil My ordinances and observe My statutes to follow them. I am Hashem, your G-d. You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am Hashem.” This preamble could have been reduced to one short verse: Perform all of my mitzvot and don’t try to imitate the Goyim. Why doesn’t the Torah dispense with the wordiness? Let’s see if we can locate any “key-words” that might gain us some traction. First of all, notice that every single mitzvah in the Torah is a member of one of two categories: it is either a mishpat (ordinance) or a chok (statute). Rashi differentiates between these two types of mitzvot. He explains that ordinances are “the laws stated in the Torah in justice, [i.e., which human intellect deems proper,] which, had they not been stated [in the Torah], would have been deemed worthy to be stated [e.g., not to steal, not to murder, etc.]”. Statutes, on the other hand, are “the ‘King’s decrees’ [without apparent rationale to man], against which the evil inclination protests, ‘Why should we keep them?’ Likewise, the nations of the world object to them. Examples include: [The prohibition of] eating pig and wearing sha’atnez [a mixture of wool and linen], and the purification procedure effected by purification water [the mixture including the ashes of the red cow]”. Using modern sociological terminology, we could state that statutes are social norms that are necessary for society to function, whereas ordinances are supra-natural laws more concerned with the individual.

Another key-word, or perhaps key-words, are the verbs that pertain to the performance of an action. In these verses no less than three different verbs are used to describe the performance of Hashem’s mitzvot: “la’asot” (translated above as “to do”), “lishmor” (to observe), and “la’lechet” (to follow). The difference between “la’asot” and “lishmor” is explained by the MaHaRaL from Prague in “Tiferet Yisrael [Chapter 34]”. The MaHaRaL quotes our Sages who teach that “doing” refers to the performance of positive commandments, such as tefillin and circumcision, while “observing” refers to the refraining of the performance of negative commandments, such as eating cheeseburgers or tailgating[2]. As for the word “to follow”, we turn to one of the more famous Rashi’s in the Torah, the first Rashi in Parashat Bechukotai [Vayikra 26:3]: “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and follow them…” Rashi quotes the Midrash and states that “I might think that [the word ‘to follow’] refers to the fulfilment of the commandments. However, when Scripture says, ‘and observe My commandments,’ the fulfilment of the commandments is [already] stated. So what is the meaning of ‘If you follow My statutes’? It means that you must toil in the study of Torah.” In short, we are commanded to “follow” the Torah by expending copious amounts of time and energy in order to study it and to understand it. However, if we implement this interpretation to the term “you shall not follow [non-Jewish] statutes”, we seem to reach a dead-end. How can the Torah tell us not to “toil” in the study of non-Jewish statutes? Are we permitted to study non-Jewish statutes as long as we don’t study “too hard” – as long as we don’t “toil”?

While trying to find an answer to this question I came across a beautiful explanation by Rav Shlomo Wolbe. Writing in “Alei Shur”, Rav Wolbe analyses the word “statutes”. He reminds us that any functioning society must possess a set of directives agreed upon by all its members, such as the sanctity of human life and property. People who do not abide by these directives are forcibly removed from their society and are referred to as “sociopaths”. The truth, says Rav Wolbe, is that not all social directives are considered logical by all societies. One society often considers another society “backwards” or “barbaric”. This is how Western society considers African society or even Eastern society. Indeed, Western society is not monolithic. The accepted French practice of allowing an extra-marital lover between five and seven in the evening is considered immoral just across the Channel in the UK. The difference between Jewish ordinances and social norms is that our ordinances are G-d-given, while social norms are particular to a given society. They are devised by men and canonized by his habits. What Rav Wolbe is telling us should shake us to our core: there are no universal social norms. At the heart of every single law ever legislated by human beings lies a “statute”, a decree “without apparent rationale to man”.

Rav Soloveichik brings the example of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”. Jean Valjean, just released from prison, robs a goblet from a well-to-do priest. Hugo, speaking through the character of Valjean, completely justifies this sin. Valjean is starving and the priest can live without the goblet. Hugo considers it an injustice for Valjean to be punished for his actions. The Torah, however, does not. The Torah commands society to support the poor through charity and tithes. It commands us to “love the stranger”. But it does not, under any circumstance, allow the stranger to invade our homes and to avail himself to our personal property. Application of this concept to our Western society is almost too easy. The West describe themselves as “post-modern”. There is no absolute right and wrong. Everything has a certain degree of rightness, everything is possible, and everything must be accepted by society. Consider a recent story in the news in which a woman, feeling that she was cast in the wrong gender, underwent gender-modification by taking massive amounts of male hormones in order to become a man. Eventually he/she decided that she wanted to bear a child, but he wanted to do this as a man. As his/her body still contained all of the required parts he/she became pregnant through artificial insemination. When he/she gave birth, he/she demanded that the hospital staff refer to her as a male and considered her the baby’s father. Had this story occurred only a decade or two ago its hero would have been ridiculed. Today, he/she is put upon a pedestal. While the Torah’s response to such a story is not unequivocal, I have great difficulties considering myself bound by the social mores of a society in which its members have absolute freedom of choice[3].

And so before the Torah begins its discussion on the non-Priestly mitzvot in the Book of Vayikra, it tells us that the laws that we are about to receive are absolute. These laws consist of things that you must do and things that you must never, under any circumstance, at any time, do. These laws include laws that you might consider logical and laws that you might consider completely illogical. Whether or not you understand these laws, and whether or not you agree with them, you are still absolutely bound by them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] Rivers of ink have been spilt trying to coherently connect successive mitzvot in the Book of Vayikra, particularly in Parashat Kedoshim This is not always a trivial pursuit.

[2] The MaHaRaL is actually referring to the difference between the words “zachor” (remember) and “shamor” (observe) that appear in the two versions of the Ten Commandments, but his analysis is equally relevant to “la’asot” and “lishmor”.

[3] This, in a nutshell, is the source of animosity between certain sectors of Israeli society and the Israeli court system. No way I’m getting into this one.