בינה בפייסבוק בינה באינסטגרם צרו קשר עם בינה במייל

Building an Ethical Society – From Mount Sinai to Rothschild Boulevard | Parashat Acharei Mot

Last week we concluded the intense period of Israel’s national holidays. In fewer than two weeks we went from Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) to Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen) to the celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). These three days, which we mark as individuals and as a community, bring us through the emotional upheaval of introspection, reflection, gratitude and more. With the conclusion of these holidays we are now left with the greater challenge of what’s next. Where do we go from here? What sort of society do we wish to build? What is the common story that holds us together through the passage of time?

These very questions lie at the heart of this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot – Kedoshim. The people of Israel have spent a year at Mount Sinai, receiving revelation, and now they are preparing to journey toward the Promised Land. In addition to the physical journey they must undergo a spiritual journey, from slavery to freedom, from strangers in a strange land, to builders of their own society. According to our Torah portion, the Israelites must build a society different from the one they have left and distinct from those around them, with their own moral guidelines outlining fitting behaviors for individual, family and nation. The laws of this portion cover a gamut of human experiences: sexuality, business affairs, familial relations, social relations, and more. These verses are intended to be the moral building blocks of the new Israelite society, the ethical foundations for the future. 

Israel society, The israeli society, Parashat Acharei Mot, Parashat Hashavua, BINA, Weekly parasha, weekly torah portion, sustainable society, dialogue

The city of Acre, people create a human tower. Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom, gpo

The biblical author sees the work of building an ethical society not only an obligation based on future responsibility, but also one derived from collective memory. The narrative thread of the Torah portion does not blur the past in order to create a clean slate for the future, but rather sees the shared memory of the past – of the emergence from slavery to freedom – as driving moral force toward the future. 

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

The experience of emancipation from slavery is a formative one that comes with obligation. Now that the people of Israel have been blessed with power, they must use it wisely. They must view it as an opportunity to heal and mend, to build a better society, to repair and not repeat the injustices of the past. The memories and trauma of slavery do not give the people of Israel a permit to take advantage of those less powerful in their midst, but rather provide a starting point for acts of justice and love.

Despite the passage of time, these themes from our Parasha can be found thousands of years later in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, signed on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948. In their wisdom, the authors of the declaration also drew a narrative thread from the collective Jewish memory of oppression toward an obligation to build an ethical society. After recalling the Jewish people’s tribulations of the past, and especially the Shoah, the declaration exhorts:

“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”

Now that the streamers of last week’s celebrations have been cleared, and the echoes of the great speeches and grand ceremonies have quieted down, we stand before the real challenge: creating a collective story that can drive us in building a better society. With all our economic, military and political might, we must strive to build as moral an Israel as we can. 

This week’s Torah portion teaches us that our great national task does not end with independence and autonomy, but merely begins there, and leads toward the construction of a more ethical and just society, and ultimately, a more just world. This is an existential journey in which each generation must ask itself, what is our story? Where do we want to go? What are the values upon which we want to build our lives? Parashat Acharei-Mot Kedoshim provides a theoretical structure through which we can begin to answer these questions. Our collective and individual responsibility is to continue to ask, to discuss, to discern and to act in such a way that we can build a new, just story in the ethical construction task that never ends. 

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Avrahahm Eisen is BINA’s Deputy Director, Education

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