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Aharei Mot and Kedoshim: Asking The Hard Questions With Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya

Bible
Ethical Issues
Fast Days
Shavua Tov @ Schechter

There are two parashiyot this week, Aharei Mot and Kedoshim, both coming at a time in our collective self-isolation where we can draw from the themes of self-reflection and evaluation.

Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, Director of Midreshet Schechter and Midreshet Yerushalayim, delves into the parashiyot and uses this as an opportunity for us to face our true selves and ask ourselves what is really important to us.

Read the accompanying article below.

The Corona crisis forces us to reconsider our priorities, to ask what is really important for us, to see who we really are. Humanity has entered into one long Shabbat, and maybe even Yom Kippur.

Parashiyot Aharei Mot and Kedoshim include a passage that refers to the second year Israelites were in the wilderness. We read about a prototype of the ritual of the High Priest service in the Temple in Jerusalem, and ultimately to the Yom Kippur of today.

We read about a dramatic ceremony that was performed on Yom Kippur, with one element that stands out – the scapegoat ritual. Two goats, identical in size, height and appearance are brought before Aaron and he draws lots for the goats. Their appearance is identical, but not their fate. One is to the Lord, to the atonement of the act (kapara), and one to purification from the moral sin, tahara, cleansing of the moral stain, will be sent away to Azazel. Ancient Israelites believed that moral sin has a material aspect; it actually sticks to you.

The Midrash, The Zohar and the fifteenth century Spanish commentator, Abarbanel notice amazing parallels between the two goats of today’s reading and Jacob and Esau’s story. Two identical goats are like the twins, Esau and Jacob. The Hebrew word used for the goat in our reading is seir, this is the word that refers to Esau at birth: “The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over, so they named him Esau” (Gen 25:25). As Esau is called red, so is the red thread attached to the scapegoat. Two goats take part in our ritual and in Jacob’s story. In the story of Jacob, when his mother, Rebecca, finds out that Isaac is about to bless Esau, she asks Jacob: “Go and bring me two choice goats, and I will make of them a dish to your father.” (Gen 27:9) And finally the central word of our reading is kapara, atonement. This root appears 23 times in our chapter. The only other time it appears with the same meaning in the Bible is when Jacob is going to meet Esau after a 22 year absence: “I will wipe his anger from his face (akapra panav) with the gift that goes ahead of my face.” (Gen 32:21)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives a fascinating explanation to the connection between the two Biblical stories. “The ritual of the two identical goats, one of which was sent away bearing with our sins, can be seen to symbolize the two identities that live in every troubled heart: the one that is myself and the one that is not my-self. When I learn to let the “not-myself” go, as the goat was let go on Yom Kippur, I find inner peace and can live at peace with the world. The goat sent away is the Esau that lived in Jacob’s mind, until one night wrestling with a stranger, Jacob learned to let go, and in that act became Israel, the father of Jewish people, content to be itself, no longer seeking the identity or the blessing of others.”

During the time of Corona, we are pushed into new reality, asking questions about what was important before Corona and what should be changed forever. We are confined to spending time with ourselves and maybe forced to let go whatever is not “me”, trying to identify our authentic self. We are asking ourselves why we did what we did.

T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets calls it “one long purification of motive” that leads to “a condition of complete simplicity costing no less than everything.” The purification of motive is necessary to achieve authenticity, to be able to bring to the surface the unconscious, all hidden biases and agendas distorting our actions. The question that we ask on Yom Kippur  is not only what we did wrong in the past year, but why we did what we did. What was the motive for our actions and decision? And are we trying to get as deep as we can to the authentic motivation? Sometimes, what drives us is a desire to receive the blessings that belong to our brothers, as Jacob wanted the blessing of Esau. Sometimes the desire to be liked by others, to please the other, as Jacob wanted to please his mom, Rebecca, to do what she wanted him to do. Corona is the chance to let go of whatever it is that is not myself, fighting face to face with an angel, facing ourselves.

Irina Gritsevskaya directs Midreshet Schechter, Schechter’s program offering bet midrash study to the general public in Israel and Midreshet Yerushalayim, Schechter’s network of Jewish educational programs, camps and communities in Ukraine. She holds a BA from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a law degree from Bar Ilan University and was ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. A native of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Gritsevskaya made aliya as a teenager and currently lives in Ramat Aviv.

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