Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16-18) is a challenging portion. It encompasses rituals of the High Priest related to a day of atonement, (16) moves on to rituals of worship (17) and finishes with a stark chapter that looks a lot a sexual roles and rules (18). The Torah, in 18:5, states that we are to perform the ordinances and laws that one can do so that we “v’chai ba’hem”, we can live by them. A traditional comment on this passage likens the performing of the “mitzvoth” as food; for just as food nourishes the body. so too do the perfomance of these ordinances “nourish” the soul.
The vast majority of us do NOT perform the rituals and ordinances as written in Torah. Many cannot be followed as they relate to the sacrificial cult. Many Jews still look at the written words of Torah with a more literal eye and heart. Yet, for the vast majority of our community, we seek to find symbolic meaning in these words. Torah as metaphor is a common approach to many. What does it mean, then, to “live by them”?
Let me suggest that these words can be seen as a means of uplifting a person. What happens to us when we engage in positive acts with others? There is enough literature to support the fact that those who “do” gain as much, if not more, than those who “receive”. The engagement with others builds and strengthens relationships and helps build community and often provides a sense of meaning. No wonder so many Boomers, responding to the need to “give back” to community, have become engaged in acts of “tikkun olom”. Likewise, how we do these “mitzvoth” for our own self is also important. If acts of kindness are good for the world, how much the more so can they benefit us. That is what commentators mean, I think, by having these acts nourish a soul. Many of us, perhaps each of us, do need to take time to nourish our own soul; to do acts of kindness for our own self.
“Live by them” can be seen as our tradition saying to us that our concept of a religious life can be based on the idea that our syatem of sacred deeds allows us to live a more sacred and engaged life, a life that helps empower our role in the community as well as allowing us to be engaged in our own self-care. For all of this we give thanks and celebrate with gratitude, the fact that through these deeds we “live”. This is a path to holiness, a path that emerges in great detail in the following Torah portion.
Rabbi Richard F Address