In Essays

Parsha Achrei Mot-Kedoshim | Feed the Poor and Care for the Stranger

Crop field with sunlight
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27. Click here to read the previous portion, Parsha Tazria-Metzora.

Back-to-back double readings, folks. And that means another dumping of Leviticus laws, rules, and expectations that seem a bit strange to our contemporary sensibilities. In short, more animal sacrifice at the Temple for the Lord for a variety of reasons. They’ve even become avatars for our sins.

“Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”

I get how that can sound like a special kind of hot nonsense. Of course you can’t transfer your transgressions to an animal, kick it out into the woods, and wash your hands of the ordeal. It’s too easy of a bandaid (assuming you can get a goat to cooperate). But I nonetheless found something intriguing about our ancient ancestors communing with animals in such a way and setting them free for our wrongdoings. When an individual fucks up, you have to bring an animal, like a goat, and do some kind of ritual slaughter. But when the entire community is at stake, the animal is set free in the wilderness. I’m sure wiser minds have wiser thoughts on that, but I like the imagery. Plus the goat doesn’t get killed.

Loving Leviticus

The first portion of this double whammy also lays out the rules for observing Yom Kippur and it’s all about the practice of “self-denial” for the sake of atonement, including your usual dash of “no manner of work” that you get for most holidays. What’s interesting to me is how our ancestors have taken this short text on Yom Kippur and have maintained it for thousands of years. This pretty typical of the Torah, for better or worse. After all, Leviticus is the infamous book that gives us the line that’s since been used to justify homophobia. But Leviticus isn’t completely outdated and obsolete.

Yes, there’s a strange run of text laying down the law on not uncovering the nakedness of various family members, written in a way that it sounds like a bad piece of slam poetry in my head. But if you can plow through that, you get to some text that’s still often quoted by more progressive groups.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.”

I mean, that seems like some pretty sage wisdom, no? I bet even the most progressive secular among us could stand to learn something from that text. I know I don’t give enough to charity. I reap just about all of my field. I could stand to leave some gleanings.

That’s not the only progressive hit Leviticus gives us. Try this one out:

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.”

Indeed, we were strangers in all sorts of lands throughout Jewish history and I’d argue that even the most secular Jews among us have kept that teaching––either consciously or sub-consciously––close to their heart. Something Jews of all stripes can be proud of is their general willingness to throw themselves on the front lines, protesting the oppression of another group of people whether it was during the Civil Rights movement or more recently protesting ICE. That certainly seems like loving the stranger as yourself to me.

Onward with Parsha Emor.

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