Acharei Mot-K’dosheem – “After the Death-Holy Ones”

The Torah readings for this Shabbat are entitled Acharei Mot, meaning “after the death” and K’dosheem translated “holy ones”. They cover Leviticus chapters 16 through 20. This passage opens with a warning for Aaron and the priests not to enter the Holy Place after having had wine or strong drink. Because it comes right after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, who had offered “strange fire” (unauthorized sacrifices) and were struck dead by God, it is thought that perhaps the two young men had been drunk when they committed this act.

The subject matter of chapter 16 is Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, occurring each year on 10 Tishri. It is the most solemn and significant day of the year in Israel’s calendar. Only on this one day each year was the High Priest permitted to enter the Most Holy Place to make atonement for the sins of all Israel. The manner and number of sacrifices was very specific, and the ritual preparations the High Priest had to make before entering the Most Holy Place were considerable. Two goats were chosen by lot. According to rabbinical tradition they were to be as nearly identical as possible – to be understood as two aspects of one and the same Yom Kippur sacrifice. One of the goats was sacrificed at the Templeby the High Priest. The other goat was called the Azazel (scapegoat, or goat of removal). The High Priest would lay his hands on the head of the Azazel and confess over it all the sins of the people of Israel. The goat was then to be led away into the wilderness by a man who stood ready for that assignment.

It is crucial that we understand this exchange of life principle – the transference of our collective sin onto an innocent animal, resulting in its death, its innocence meanwhile simultaneously transferred to us, resulting in our continued life. Bearing our guilt, the innocent one goes away – far away – to its death. The Psalmist wrote of this idea: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us”(Psalm 103:12). Yom Kippur illustrates the infinite separation between a holy God and sinful human beings, and so clearly demonstrates why Messiah Yeshua, the Innocent One, the Sinless One, had to die in our place. Seven hundred years before the event took place, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. (Isaiah 53:5). Yeshua’s act of taking the penalty for our sin satisfied both the demand of God’s infinite justice, and yet at the same time demonstrated His infinite mercy towards us. Aren’t you glad we don’t get what we deserve?

Chapter 17 contains the strongest prohibition against eating blood or offering it in any manner other than within God’s stated guidelines – this under penalty of death! There were still those among us who had not separated themselves from the pagan ways of Egypt. The Lord condemned our sacrifices to what are called in verse 7 ‘goat demons’. The principle is that blood is sacred. It is life! Verse 11 reads: For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. The payment or atonement for a life requires a life – a blood sacrifice, but only in God-approved ways. The life principle is also why blood was not to be eaten – neither then, nor in the New Covenant. Acts chapter 15 places only four demands upon Gentile followers of Yeshua, but this is one of them.

span style=”font-size: large;”>Chapters 18-20 contain prohibitions against pagan religious rituals and against illicit sexual activity. We are forbidden, for example, from going to mediums or practicing any sort of divination or sorcery. We are prohibited from cutting or tattooing our bodies or cutting the edges of our beards in bizarre ways. These were activities associated with worship of the dead – about which the Egyptians were thoroughly preoccupied. We are forbidden from engaging in adultery, incest, bestiality and homosexuality. We are forbidden from child sacrifice. These practices are denounced by God as abominable and perverse, and earned the death penalty. In fact, God warned us repeatedly that it was on account of just such practices that He was driving out the Canaanites. Illicit sexual activity and pagan religious rites were also prohibited in the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Chapters 19-20 focus on the demand for and the definition of holiness. God calls us to be His holy people, and that means there are some things we are required to do, and other things we are prohibited from doing. In these chapters holiness includes reverence for God, reverence for one’s parents, faithful observance of the Sabbath and compassion towards the poor. Holiness excludes stealing, swindling, lying, using God’s name for false oaths, oppressing others (including withholding a person’s wages who has done work for you), mockery of those with disabilities, or seizing on others’ disabilities to gain an advantage. A holy people were not to pay out bribes nor accept bribes, we were not to pervert the judicial process, nor slander others, nor devise ways to harm others. Holiness forbids prostitution, it forbids occult practices, it even forbids holding grudges.

Holiness also means recognizing God-ordained distinctions: men are men and women are women, and we are not to blur that distinction, neither in our manner of dress nor in sexual union. For that matter, we are not to interbreed different animals, nor plant two different kinds of crops in the same field, nor wear clothes made of mixed fabrics. God was teachingIsrael – and is teaching us – the principal of separation, holiness. The created order is God’s created order, and holiness demands we respect what He has done and not suppose we know better.

The parashas end with these words: Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine. If holiness seems demanding, it is only because God has our well-being in mind. He knows that without holiness we will never live to see Him, and without holiness our lives and even society itself will quickly disintegrate. The Lord loves us too much to let that happen without a warning. The question is: do you hear His warning? Is there anything about your life that says you are set apart for God, or are you blending in too comfortably with the prevailing culture? May God help us to live lives set apart, lives characterized by obedience to His Word. That obedience is perhaps what truly defines holiness for us.