Parashat Achrei Mot
This portion begins with the aftermath of the death of Nadav and Avihu. They died because they decided to do their own thing, offer fire in a way they thought God would accept. God had made it clear how He wanted to be followed and served, and that was not it. No surprise then that the laws pertaining to Yom Kippur should follow directly on from this, the priests offered atonement for the people and if the priests were rotten then sacrifice would be to no avail.
It seems that God wanted to make one thing absolutely clear: we are commanded to follow the Torah, the righteous standards of God, and ‘to live in accord with them’. Doing this will create a ‘life’ for us, a framework that will structure our everyday existence, define what it means to be human (and Jewish, to belong to the Creator of all). It will give us the correct way to interpret life, make holy connections and understand existence. Why does the Lord emphasise this so? Because for most of us this ‘interpretational framework’ is drummed into us from different sources from an early age. To be successful in walking through life, we need to be strongly aware of the competing forces and influences that vie for our attention and absorption.
In Israel the pattern was to be straightforward: here the Kingdom of God was to be established after His pattern of righteous living. But we have sojourned in other countries for so long, enjoying the ‘blessings’ of their civilised cultures and accepting the lie that prosperity is attainable without God, that it is inevitable that the slow drip of conflicting values has worn us down.
Lev 18:3: “You are not to engage in the activities found in the land of Egypt, where you used to live; and you are not to engage in the activities found in the land of Kena’an, where I am bringing you; nor are you to live by their laws.” In the wilderness we were going to be prone to spiritual mirages in the heat of daily reality e.g. the cucumbers of Egypt! And the Land ahead was filled with milk and honey! Both what was behind us and what was ahead seemed immeasurably better than what we had right there.
We were being told to distance ourselves from the systems of thought and belief which if pursued would lead us to strange practices, erode truth and corrupt the righteousness that should prevail in the Kingdom of God. Often in the Torah, Egypt is referred to as the ‘house of bondage’: we need to remember not to look at the ‘heights of civilisation’ represented by Egypt, but rather how it has enslaved you, enticed you and ultimately seduced you to fall under its sway.
Once we entered the Land, another problem could arise: the products of that society and culture would be right there before our eyes! We had it hard in the wilderness and deep down ‘having it hard’ seems to equate in the human psyche with punishment; we deserved this somehow. So if all this existed without God and His ways, the temptation is immediately there to think that that must be preferable to what you’ve just had!
A ‘successful’ country is not one that is big, powerful or economically strong, but one that puts God first (and His culture/worldview) rather than fitting Him into their own. We must not be seduced by what seems nice and good around us. Just because our country seems civilised doesn’t mean it is. We are called, on a cultural level, to flee the surrounding philosophies that trap us. We must focus on the statutes and commandments given by God and their transformative power through acting in faith, all the while rejecting the insidious infecting and finally contaminating power of the world and its values. In Yeshua’s words, the truth will set you free.
If the very thought world and value culture was not eradicated from us then disaster would follow. That is why we must meditate on the good. It is why we must not be tricked by deceptive philosophies which compete to ensnare us. Sin is progressive: the first step – thought – is the one that leads to the final destination. Guarding the source will prevent the later action or deed. Yeshua, in His teaching on the mount, makes it clear that what is going on in that inner world is precisely what will eventually come out.
What Yeshua is talking about is illustrated by Ya’akov in James 1:13-15: lust conceives and gives birth to sin. Sin, actual and real is the result of something that started much earlier in the heart and mind. Yeshua is saying that we need to build fences of the heart, in the inner world, allowing the renewed heart with Torah engraved on it to come out rather than choosing the old ways of the cultures and societies we grew up in. These heart fences will put an early check on our progress towards sin. Other forms of Judaism teach that these fences should be external, each fence literally protecting a commandment in real time and space. But evil doesn’t start in the physical; it starts in the human heart. That’s where the fences need to be put. We need to guard our hearts from things that influence us to the wrong way and so keep our hearts pure for Him.