Dov Lerea
Dov Lerea

The Torah against the abuse of power

Acharei-mot Kedoshim
5781/2021

This Shabbat we read the double portion, parashat acharei-mot/kedoshim. The content and juxtaposition of these parshiot are fascinating. Most of Acharei-mot describes the sacrificial service of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, on Yom Kippur. This is called the ‘Avodah service. There are two moments that lie at the heart of this ritual. First Aharon offers a bull, and then enters the Holy of Holies with incense and a fire-pan of hot coals and places that incense in front of the aron kodesh. The rabbis call this moment, life lifnim, entering into the holiest sanctuary, penetrating deeply into the most sacred space in the world, with an offering of pure fragrance filling that space with his purity of intent and full concentration.

Following that mystical experience intended to effect the sacramental transformation of the people from blemished to pure, the Kohen Gadol emerges and confesses sins on the head of a goat. The Kohen Gadol confesses on his own behalf, on behalf of his priestly family, and on behalf of the entire Jewish people while he lays his hands on the head of a goat selected by lottery. That goat, as a purification offering known as the se’ir le’azaz’el, is led to a cliff and then hurled into the wilderness. Commentators are divided about the meaning of that word, ‘azaz’el. Some claim that the word names a demon, a type of demiurge, whereas others claim the word means, “uncultivated wilderness.” Either way, the exile and demise of this goat heralds the capacity of the nation to enter the year cleansed of the burden and stain of their sins.

Acharei-mot ends with Leviticus/Vayikra 18, describing forbidden sexual relationships. Jacob Milgrom’s seminal commentary on this chapter makes a powerful case for reading all of the forbidden relationships in this section as relationships involving sexual abuse. The section emphasizes the social structures in which men were surrounded by the many women in their family, the Torah forbidding the men from violating any of them. According to this reading, since the verse abjuring sexual relations between men is set in this same context, the plain sense of the text would suggest that the Torah forbids a man from raping another man in an act of abusive power to emasculate his victim.

This reading has the additional advantage of forming a bridge to parashat Kedoshim. Kedoshim describes many mitzvot. There are so many mitzvot in the parasha, that commentators are challenged to find an underlying, organizing principle, lest one conclude that the portion forms a random, disorganized list. Yet, when viewed from the perspective of the dynamics of power, coherence emerges. Every mitzvah described in Kedoshim suggests a prohibition against, or actions that would mitigate against the abuse of power. All of the mitzvot are relational, and like the forbidden sexual unions at the end of Acharei-mot, establish boundaries that protect against potential violation. Since the Torah assumes that people are holistic, whole beings with relationships to ourselves, to others, to animals and plants throughout the natural world, and to the Creator, the mitzvot describe scenarios in all of those spheres of life. Some of these mitzvot relate to the relationship between human beings and God, while others relate to interpersonal relationships. Examples include leaving produce in the field for the poor (peah), employers paying salary on time, (oshek), respecting the blind, (cheresh v’lifne iver), judges treating litigants with equanimity (‘avel & lo tisa p’nei dal), prohibiting gossip and slander (r’chilut), responding to immediate crises as “good Samaritans,” (dam re’echa), prohibiting holding a grudge (lo tikom v’lo titor) and respecting all human beings (v’ahavta lere’acha). There are mitzvot about protecting species of animals and plants and respecting the elderly. Commercial law includes equal weights and measures in fair business practice. All of these examples involve power dynamics, in which someone has an advantage over someone else. In every case, the Torah admonishes us never, ever, under any circumstances, to abuse our power. The full corpus of mitzvot between these two parshiot move from dynamics at the heart of the most intimate human relationships, to commercial interactions and our domination over the natural world. The religious message forbidding the abuse of power remains more relevant today than ever before.

The centrality of the abuse of power is what joins Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Chapter 18 of Sefer Vayikra is the last section of Acharei Mot, and chapter 20 completes Kedoshim. Both chapters teach the prohibitions of gilui arayot, forbidden sexual relations. All of the prohibitions, when taken together, place sexual abuse at the center of a corrupt, profane society. There can be no godliness in a place of such abuse of power. The prohibitions emphasize the boundaries that must be placed on men from abusing the many women that surrounded them: mother, sisters, aunts, in-laws, wives, children. Those relationships are, by definition in this context, abusive. The land itself will not tolerate a society that enables, allows, tolerates, ignores, or otherwise justifies sexual abuse. You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle vomit you out. You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them….(20:22-23) All of the relationships described in Kedoshim must be protected against potential abuses. If abuses are tolerated in business practices, and between society and the environment, and between humans and animals, then the abuse of bodies will be tolerated and justified. If sexual abuse is allowed in schools, in the workplace, in government, in athletics, in doctors’ offices and nursing homes and hospitals, all sectors of society, it will be tolerated where there should be the most trust and intimacy–between partners in the intimacy of the home. And once the boundaries protecting against sexual abuse are violated, abuses of power against bodies in general will be justified by law. Europe tolerated the legal justification of dehumanization and abuse against Jewish bodies during the 20th century, and America has come to tolerate the continued abuse of bodies of color in the 21st. And God has no place in the world of abuse.

This message, that human abuse of the world, of animals, of each other, alienates and exiles God’s presence, finds expression in the realm of political governance. The Talmud teaches the following message:

Anyone who is in the position to protest against sinful behavior in the home, but remains silent, bears the guilt of that deed. Anyone in position to protest against sinful behavior in society but remains silent, bears the guilt of those deeds. Anyone who is in the position to protest against sins perpetuated in the world but remains silent bears the guilt of those misdeeds. (Bavli, Shabbat 54b-55a)

Rabbi Menachem Meiri (13th-14th c. Catalan) clarifies further, “If the king sins, and the society fails to protest, the entire society will bear the iniquity of that leader.” The message is clear. Human beings are relational. Our relationships are professional, social, political, economic. We interact with each other and with the created world, with plants, animals, and the earth. We are endowed with intelligence, passion, and the capacity for tremendous creativity. Those gifts also enable us to abuse our power in all sectors, from the most public to the most hidden. The source that describes the world of the High Priest, entering God’s most intimate sanctuary, acknowledges that humanity’s abuse of power can exile the Creator. May we, together, work towards transforming the current world, filled with abuses, into the sanctuary God continues to yearn to occupy in our midst.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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