Tora Thoughts: Parashot Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
The Weekly and the Holiday Torah Readings
This week we read two parashot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. The first of them starts with the description of the Yom Kippur ritual of cleansing and purification. The ritual, to be fulfilled at the Tabernacle in the desert, involved mainly Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was the first High Priest. Nevertheless, this is also the basis for the ritual that was performed years later in the Temple of Jerusalem and sustained for a long time. This paragraph is also the Torah reading for the morning of Yom Kippur, as well as the basis for the well-known Avodah service, also during Yom Kippur.
I have often had the experience that, when I explain that this week’s reading is also the Yom Kippur reading, some people get confused. Why read the Yom Kippur reading in April? And, in general, why repeat a reading during the year?
This same phenomenon happens with the other festivals, like Pesach or Sukkot. And most notably with the Ten Commandments, which, apart from being the Shavuot reading, appears twice in the Torah (with slight differences). Why do we read the festival readings during another time of the year? Isn’t that weird?
The reason for this repetition has to do with the difference between the regular cycle of the Torah reading and the special Torah readings we have for the festivals. During the year, we read a section of the Torah every week. In Hebrew we call each section a Parasha. The sections are read one after the other, always starting and ending at Simchat Torah, sometime in late September or October. There is no correlation between each week’s reading and the time of the year when they are read (although, we should add, rabbis always are looking for these types of correlations, and sometimes they find very smart ways to relate one particular section to the time of the year when it is read).
In addition to the regular weekly reading of the Torah, the sages established specific paragraphs the be read during the holy days and commemorations of the Hebrew Calendar. They were chosen because their contents are directly related to the festival that is being celebrated. For example, we read the Ten Commandments during the first day of Shavuot because during this holiday we celebrate the giving of the Torah.
Regarding our weekly reading, which begins at Leviticus 16, we read it this week simply because it is the section assigned, sequentially, for this week of the year. As I wrote earlier, this section describes the Yom Kippur ritual, and that is why the sages determined that this section should be read also during Yom Kippur. Therefore, although we usually say that this week we read “the Yom Kippur reading,” that is confusing. We should instead say that this week we read the section Acharei Mot, which is also read at Yom Kippur. Similar… but different!
Even as I devoted this week’s Torah Thoughts to explaining the difference between the parasha for the week and the holiday’s readings, let me please say a word about this week’s particular reading. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his D’rash commentary to our Chumash Etz Hayim, explains that this week’s Torah section is read in the springtime, some six months before and after Yom Kippur. What can we learn from this fact? —That any season is an appropriate time for self-scrutiny and atonement.
Is this the reason why we read the “Yom Kippur” portion this week? No, absolutely not! We read this portion this week because it is the section that comes up for this week. We read it also at Yom Kippur because our sages chose it to be the Yom Kippur reading. However, we can draw an important lesson from this fact, which won’t hurt anybody, don’t you think?