” You shall live by them”
Life Lessons from the Torah Portion
Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim(Leviticus 16:1–20:27)
In the Torah- portions of Acharei-Mot we read the following:
You shall fulfill My ordinances and observe My statutes, to walk in them. I am the Lord, your God. You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them [vachai bahem], . I am the Lord.Leviticus 18:4-5
” You shall live by them-vachai bahem” .
Is that really possible? What do those words truly mean?
The Talmud teaches that the words ” You shall live by them” declares the obligation to preserve human life overrides the obligation to observe any of the other commandments. That is true for all the commandments except for three exceptions (Pesachim 25 and Sanhedrin 74a): Idolatry-Avodah Zarah, , Murder- Shfichat Damim and Licentious Behavior-Gilui Arayot. If a person is given a choice- worship this idol ,engage in an illicit sexual relationship ot commit murder and if not then you die, then one must submit to martyrdom.
Yet the words imply so much more. We read in Deuteronomy the following;
“Set your hearts to all the words which I testify among you this day, which you shall command your children to observe to do, all the words of this Torah. For it is not a vain thing for you: Because it is your life.” Deuteronomy 32:46).
Those simple words, “Because it is your life,” imply much more than reward and evoke something much deeper than achievement. It is your very life. We are left with the question of our ability to truly “Live by Them” . In fact the question becomes even more poignant and seemingly unattainable with the declaration further in the reading ; “You shall be holy, for I, Hashem, your G-d, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1-2)”
This is so because mortal beings seem overwhelmed by the task. We become so caught up with our failures, our limitations and our pain that we sometimes consider the task of living within God’s will as being beyond human capability. There are theologies that contend that since G-d is Holy and perfect, He cannot countenance imperfect humans. In keeping with this thinking doctrines have been developed that allows for mortals to “become perfect”.
Yet in the Torah portion of “Acharei Mot “ ( Leviticus 16:1-18-30) we read the following regarding Yom Kippur( the Day of Atonement):
“For on this day it shall atone ( Yechaper) for you to cleanse ( LeTaher) you. Before HaShem, you shall be cleansed from all your sins .It is a shabbat of solemn rest unto you, and you shall afflict your souls; it is a statute for ever.(Vayikra/ Leviticus 16:30-31).
The renowned sage Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi went so far as to maintain that atonement is granted on the day of Yom Kippur because “the essence of the day (itzumo shel yom mechaper) atones.” (Yoma 85b).The Rambam agrees and declares that “On Yom Kippur, it is the day itself that atones…..as it is written “For on this day it shall atone for you” (Mishneh Torah, laws of repentance 1:3) Yet according to most, the day does not remove the need for true repentance.
Yet to understand this concept , we must focus on the specific word used in the verse . The verse reads “For on this day it shall atone ( Yechaper) for you to cleanse ( LeTaher) you.” (Leviticus 16:30)To atone ( Lechaper) for sins is a prerequisite to ” sanctification-LeT aher. The Day “atones” in order to empower us to do the work of sanctification.
We then need to go deeper in exploring explore the word LeChaper- to atone. The Malbim in Sefer HaCarmel describes the word Lechaper – to atone, as having several possible meanings. It can mean “ to cover” , to”redeem” or to “superficially wash” . Yet all those three actions do not truly remove the sin. They simply cover or beautify it. It is only the subsequent work of sanctification and repentance that truly eliminates the soul. So why do we need atonement first.
To understand this, one must truly ask another question “Who are we covering the sin from? The instinctive answer is that we are attempting to hide or cover our sins from G-d.
That cannot be true as King David declares in psalms ” For He knows the secrets of the heart.(psalms 44:22) and in the book of Job we read” I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose can be covered from You.”( Job 42:2)
The prophet Isaiah says ” But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear.”( Isaiah 59:2).
Yet sin does not keep G-d away from man, sin keep man away from G-d. As a result of our sins, we have begun to feel so unworthy and we have turned further from away G-d. We feel so unworthy that we cannot even “look upon His face “
So G-d gives us the method to cover the sins from ourselves. It is only after they have been covered from our sight that we regain the determination to gather our strength and continue into the intense process of Tahara, or cleansing.
Freed from the burden of our failures, infinite possibilities open before us. Once we truly understand the power of repentance we are empowered to begin the journey to what we could and should be. The Maggid of Mezrich explains that the words VeChai BaHem can also mean “and put life into them.” We have to bring life into the mitzvahs we do. We are empowered to make the commandments a living and breathing echo of our relationship with our Divine beloved. Each Mitzva is changed from an obligation to an opportunity
Though we may face future challenges again in that journey the incredible power of teshuva –repentance opens the way all that is possible. Then and only then can we begin the work of ” You shall live by them-vachai bahem.”.