This week’s Rabbi’s Notebook will be presented in two parts. Part Two will continue next week for Parshas Kedoshim.
Last week’s Rabbi’s Notebook began with the question, why did the Torah present the 15 prohibited relationships in the same Parsha that detailed the Avodah (service) for Yom Kippur? To answer this question I developed Rav Hirsch’s concept of love within the family. Rav Hirsch asked why the Torah prohibited incest. He explained that love and responsibility should be natural expressions of a family’s dynamic. Siblings care for each other in a loving manner because they share the same environment, experiences, and influences. They share familial ties of familiarity as well as genetics. Therefore, natural bonds called love develop between members of the same family, especially those closest to each other such as brothers and sisters. Because a loving bond and relationship already exists within the family, there is no need for the additional bond created through physical intimacy; therefore, the Torah prohibits incest.
Physical and intellectual attraction begins the process of bridging the demarcation between individuals and separate family units. As the new couple spend time and share experiences the beginning bond strengthens into a new loving family unit that links the two families of origin to each other and thereby extends the natural love of family.
The growing groupings of families are a microcosm of an ideal society. Diverse individuals with differing points of origin embrace each other and create extended bonds of concern and responsibility. At the same time, each individual and family of origin retains its unique character and culture. Newly emerging family units borrow from each other’s cultures and form their own unique family character. In the end, families grow from the 70 souls of old into a nation of diverse tribes sharing similar beliefs and values.
It is interesting to note that the sexual limitations listed at the end of last week’s Parsha are unique to the human species. All other species assume incest as a natural and proper expression of their continuity. Humans are the only ones commanded to respect the boundaries within the family unit and seek mates outside of their own family of origin. Likewise, humans are the only species where individual members of the species are so clearly distinguishable from all other individual members of the same species. This uniqueness dictates that on the one hand we must maintain our individuality and respect each other’s person and culture. On the other hand we must create bonds that unify our diversity through shared responsibility, values, and love.
My Father Shlit’a shared with me the following insight into the famed third blessing of Bilam – the evil prophet. As Bilam gazed down upon the Jewish encampment from the heights of Peor, he proclaimed, “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yakov – How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.” Rashi referenced the Talmud in Bava Basra 60a that describes what motivated Bilam’s blessing. “He saw that the doors of the individual tents did not face each other.”
Imagine an army camp. Tents aligned along both sides of a walkway with each tent perfectly positioned opposite the tent on the other side of the walkway. This arrangement is the most sensible organization for ease of access to and from the public streets as well as finding where an individual tent is located. Yet, the Jewish encampment was obviously not arranged in this fashion. Bilam immediately noted this and understood why.
Fundamental to appreciating the value of every individual is personal modesty. On the one hand it expresses a healthy self-image. On the other hand it enhances the respect we should each have for each other. The fact that the Jewish tents were not aligned across from each other but were arranged so that the tents could not see into each other, expressed the beauty and uniqueness of our lifestyle of Torah and Mitzvos. We recognize individuality and we respect individual worth. Yet we are still a single nation, diverse in person yet unified in truth and mission.
My Father Shlita offered another interpretation. He explained that the arrangement of the tents were intended, not only to protect the neighbors privacy, but even more so to protect the family’s privacy. A family must recognize and appreciate its own uniqueness. A family is an entity unto itself and has the obligation to protect its privacy and character. Therefore, the Jews arranged their camp so that they protected their own privacy while at the same time respecting each other’s privacy.
The most unique day in the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we are forgiven for our sins. On Yom Kippur we regain our closeness with G-d. On Yom Kippur we forgive each other and regain our closeness to each other. On Yom Kippur we recognize the uniqueness of each person through asking their forgiveness and in the process remove the differences that distanced us from each other.
The Kohain Gadol was the one person allowed and obligated to do the Yom Kippur; however, the service could not be selfish or self-serving. The High Priest represented the entire nation and to do so properly demanded that he first facilitate his own forgiveness before atoning for the sins of others.
The Avodah was performed in the Temple, which was called a Bayis – a home. The Temple as a home had areas that were available to the public and areas that were restricted and private. The most private of all was the Holy of Holies. On the one hand, the service highlighted the inherent differences separating Jew from Jew, family member from family member. On the other hand, the Kohain Gadol represented every Jew, regardless of age, station, or gender.
G-d wanted us to view his home and his children as a big family with the clear demarcations that must exist within every family. Those demarcations involved twelve separate tribes further classified into Kohanim, Leviyim, and plain Jews, and integrated into a collage of talents and responsibilities all sharing identical ideals and values. G-d wanted for His family moments of celebration, reflection, joy, concern, and most of all forgiveness. G-d wanted His home filled with love of self, appreciation of others, and forgiveness for all.
The juxtaposition of Yom Kippur to the 15 prohibited relationships is now clear. Our national character is that of a single loving family. All of us are brothers and sisters to each other. G-d is the parent and the Bais Hamikdash is our home. Just as the family is founded on the principles of individual worth and respect, so too our relationship with G-d and each other is founded on the principles of individual worth and respect.
Our history is the proof of all this. The Talmud in Gitin states that the destruction of our Temple and the exile of our people were caused by Sinas Chinum – unwarranted hatred. Our nation’s goal is to form bonds of love and concern that connect us all. Sinas Chinum destroys those bonds and shatters the beautiful mosaic of our people. A family filled with unwarranted hatred for each other cannot live together in the same home. Therefore the Bais Hamikdash had to be destroyed.
Copyright © 2003 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.