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Rabbis-Notebook - Acharei Mos - Torah.org
Acharei Mos - Love From Inside Out
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
This week's Rabbi's Notebook will be presented in two parts. Part Two will
continue next week for Parshas Kedoshim.
This week's Parsha is the Torah portion read on Yom Kippur. The first part
of the Parsha read Yom Kippur morning, details the special Avodah (service)
performed by the Kohain Gadol on Yom Kippur. The latter part of the Parsha
read Mincha time on Yom Kippur, lists the Torah's 15 prohibited intimate
relationships. Why did the Torah present these two topics in the same
Parsha, and why do we read them on Yom Kippur?
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch poses a question that at first glance should
raise a few eyebrows. Rav Hirsch asked, "Why did the Torah prohibit
incest"? In fact, Rav Hirsch went so far as to say that (aside from genetic
concerns) incestuous marriages appear more logical than non-incestuous
Consider the theoretical marriage between a brother and a sister. Marriages
always demand adjustments and compromises. Different experiences, different
spousal and parenting role models, different expectations for what a
marriage and family should be. Something as seemingly simple as the food
"my Mother used to make," can become a point of contention and difficulty.
Certainly the differences in how to raise children are potential land mines
in the tranquil pasture of a marriage. Lasting and healthy marriages demand
confrontation, negotiation and compromise in all these important and not so
We just celebrated Pesach. How many of us have had to rewrite our family
Seder? I am sure that in a few cases one spouse or the other forgave their
own Seder experience in favor of the way their in-laws conducted their
Seder; however, I assume that most of us cut and paste from the traditions
of both families of origin and create our own "new and improved" version of
relating the Hagadah. How much wistful negotiation did that take?
Marriage is an ongoing process of negotiation and resolution. The better a
couples ability to give and forgive, the stronger their relationship will
be. The less developed their ability to problem-solve and compromise the
more contentious and resentful the marriage will be.
Imagine the relative ease of the incestuous marriage. Shared memories of
cherished family holidays and occasions; similar exposure to spousal
relationships and child rearing; high probability for identical
expectations in love and war; no need to negotiate where to go for the
Yomim Tovim; and best of all, no problems with the in-laws.
Humor and facetiousness aside, Rav Hirsch suggests the most sensible reason
for encouraging incestuous marriages. Brothers and sisters begin life
loving each other for who they each are. The process of courtship would be
founded upon knowledge and honesty. Bad habits, bad hair days, mood swings,
closeted skeletons, and other such secrets would all be a matter of record
rather than eventual revelation or discovery. Any brother and sister who
would wish to marry each other after knowing all that they know about each
other would truly love each other in the most open and complete way
possible. What better foundation could there be for a loving lasting
marriage? Why not allow it? Why not encourage it?
Rav Hirsch explains that the exact logic suggesting why incestuous
marriages should be allowed is the reason why G-d forbade incest. As we
have noted many times before, separation is natural to creation. Day from
night, heaven from earth, land from sea, species from species, fish from
fowl from animal from human, man from woman, nation from nation, and good
from evil. However, within each species of flora, fish or mammal there are
few obvious distinctions that further distinguish and separate individual
creations within a species from each other - except among humans. Within
the human species distinguishing features and characteristics are
sufficient to differentiate one individual human from the next. This is so
much so that among humans identical twins are a novelty because of their
Natural differences are G-d's way of identifying divinely gifted qualities
and responsibilities. If humans in contrast to other species are the only
creatures to have such overt differences in appearance and character within
their own species then G-d is telling us something about our obligations as
The most logical place to begin exploring G-d's intentions for us as a
unique species of distinguishable individuals is to assume a consistency of
intention in regards to all such differences. Therefore, whatever G-d's
reasons are for making us look and be different from each other is related
to our quality of free will. Free will sets us apart from all other
creatures and individual differences within the human species set us apart
from each other; therefore, our individual distinguishing differences must
relate to our free will.
On the most basic level, the differences between us should generate respect
for each other and our individual places within G-d's overall design.
Likewise, it teaches us where we personally fit in to His design and
presents us with the choice of doing or not doing what G-d wishes for and
from each of us. However, based upon Rav Hirsch's explanation why the Torah
forbids incest, I would like to suggest a more profound connection between
free will and the individual differences within the human species.
On the one hand, G-d created differences between species to mark
irreconcilable demarcations; on the other hand, G-d did not set any such
demarcations within the other species.
On the one hand, the human is already distinguished from all other species
by virtue of free will; on the other hand, we are further distinguished by
virtue of the individual traits that exist within the human species but do
not exist as overtly within other species.
On the one hand, we must remain apart and different from all other species
and from each other; on the other hand, we must bridge the individual
differences that distinguish us from each other and become more like the
other species - a single, integrated organism.
On the one hand, we must recognize and respects individuality; on the other
hand, we must build on the similarities that unite us.
According to Rav Hirsch, love is the drive that can unite our individuality
and the bond that keeps us together and family is the working example of
how love should both remove differences between individuals while at the
same time respecting and encouraging individual differences.
Let us take a look at the unit of family as it relates to the human
species. Individuals cannot grow to independence without the support of
family. Parents clearly provide the main ingredients of life and support;
however, siblings and the extended family of stepparents, half-siblings,
grandparents, uncles, and aunts, provide the training ground for
appropriate exchanges of concern and respect. Family is life's first
classroom for teaching individual maturation and responsibility.
G-d wishes to unite the entire world in mutual respect, concern and
responsibility. If not for the fear of sounding very sixty-seventyish, I
would say that G-d wishes to unite the entire world in love. If family is
the basic unit of love then love is the bond that can unite family with
The bond that already exists within the family unit is the perfect
microcosm of G-d's intended world. Separate individuals bound to each other
experientially, emotionally, and responsibly but not sexually. Separate
individuals sharing time, space, respect, and concern while maintaining
between themselves natural, appropriate boundaries and demarcations.
However, to bind family unit to family unit and increase the exchange of
concern, responsibility and love, G-d encouraged families to unite with
other families. This bonding, this extending of G-d's will, this creation
of a new family unit that binds family to family, includes the magical
ingredient of physical intimacy.
(Take note that incest is only forbidden by the Torah within the basic
family unit. Once individual members of the family unit, such as brothers
and sisters, have evolved into their own distinguishable family units,
their offspring may marry each other and form their own family units. (1st
cousins are permitted to marry each other.)
A comment regarding intermarriage.
Although G-d intended for individual humans to form families and for
families to marry each other, G-d clearly forbade the intermarriage between
Jew and non-Jew. Although G-d's commandments do not require explanation, it
is clear from the Torah that G-d wishes the Jew to remain apart from all
other nations. The position of the Jews as the Chosen People is to model
G-d's intentions for all of humanity. The complexity of our national
structure: individual, family, tribe, Kohain, Layvie, and Yisroel, suggests
that we must model for the rest of the world the integration of our
families and other divine designations into a viable loving whole, "As one
individual with one heart." As such we must remain apart and distinguished
so that the world can view us as a microcosm of all humanity and learn by