Acharei Mot- Reciprocated Reliance- Putting “Ani Hashem Elokeichem” first

Our parsha, aside from discussing the Yom Kippur service in the Temple, also includes פרשת עריות, which discusses all of the forbidden relationships in Judaism. The section opens:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם:  אֲנִי, ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶם. כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם-בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ; וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם, לֹא תֵלֵכוּ. אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ וְאֶת-חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם:  אֲנִי, ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶם.

And G-d spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to all of the Jewish people, and tell them: I am G-d. Do not act like those in Egypt, where you lived, and do not act like those in Canaan where I am bringing you, and do not follow their laws. You shall follow my laws and keep my rules to follow them, I am G-d. (ויקרא יח: א-ד)

What a strange opening to such an important section. On a textual level, there are several unusual nuances. First, we are told the superfluous statement “I am G-d.” Then, G-d tells us specifically not to follow the laws of Egypt or Canaan, then the more general “their laws.” Finally, the introduction closes with another unnecessary “I am G-d,” hinting that there may be something deeper to these verses than meets the eyes.

Aside from these nuances, the third passuk begs a more obvious question. If Canaan is such a hotbed of corruption and immorality that it is being compared to Egypt, why would G-d take the Jewish people out of Egypt in the first place? Wouldn’t it be safer to remain enslaved to a nation whose foreign culture has become more known to the Jews over time, than to move someplace new and face unprecedented threats to their עבודת השם?

While many commentators address some of our more basic textual questions, I would like to present an approach which will not only address these, but will also answer our bigger question of why G-d took us out of Egypt:

Scripture has made it very clear that in the times of our forefathers, the world was not a very moral place. Avraham set a new standard for morality when he accepted monotheism- he was called אברהם העברי for this very reason, for he stood on the “other side” from all of those around him, and guarded himself from sin. Moral scruples were unfortunately at a absolute low. Ramban explains that Egypt was well-known as the global center for עבודה זרה, while the Canaanites were even worse, for their allure was in עריות. Despite this, G-d freed the Jews from slavery and led them to ארץ כנען. Why would He put them in this bad situation?
I believe that the answer lies in faith. Every day, we wake up and express our thanks to G-d for allowing us to return to the world, then we express our faith in G-d. But faith is a two-way road, and while our faith in G-d may have saved our nation from catastrophe many times, the truth is that every time, we were only saved because of G-d’s faith in us. Just as we believe in His ability to guide us, save us, and redeem us, He believes in our ability to do the right thing- to follow His commandments and not stray from His path. In taking the Jews out of the idolatrous Egypt and brining them to the immoral Canaan, G-d was expressing His faith in us- His belief that our forebears could change the culture of Canaan. That their כיבוש הארץ would not only destroy the seven Canaanite nations, but also their evil culture. This could explain the seemingly unnecessary “ובחוקתיהם לא תלכו”- yes, the Jewish people shouldn’t follow the ways of the Land of Canaan, but only while these ways are “חוקותיהם- their laws.” As soon as the land is conquered and under Jewish control, this would no longer be “חוקותיהם,” but rather “משפתי” and “חקתי”-  My (G-d’s) laws, which, as we see above, are directly connected to “אני ה’ אלקיכם.” In essence, G-d took us out of Egypt to a place that at that time was not much better than where they left, because of His faith in our ability to make the right changes and fix the societal wrongs of our Promised Land.

I would like to take this a step further by attempting to answer why our פסוקים are book-ended by “אני ה’ אלקיכם.” Back in the times of יציאת מצרים, the Jews were faced with a dilemma. They had seen time and time again that G-d was with Moshe in the signs and miracles that were performed. But, with the thought of leaving one morally corrupt place for another, many Jews may have questioned why their destination was ארץ כנען. Many may have even said that they were better off in a land of עובדי עבודה זרה, which, over the centuries spent there, they had gotten used to, than in the frightening new land of עריות, which could cause their brothers to sin. But, there is a famous gemara (כתובות יג:ב), which makes everything all too clear:

שכל הדר בארץ ישראל דומה כמי שיש לו אלוה, וכל הדר בחוצה לארץ דומה כמי שאין לו אלוה שנא’ (ויקרא כה) לתת לכם את ארץ כנען להיות לכם לאלהים

For anyone who lives in Eretz Yisrael is like he has a G-d, and anyone who lives outside of Israel is as if he has no G-d, for it says “To give you Eretz Canaan, to be a G-d for you”…

Those who would remain in physical שעבוד (living outside of Israel, not to mention enslavement), to avoid a perceived spiritual שאבוד, are as much an עובד עבודה זרה as the gentiles around them. This could explain the beacon of the seemingly superfluous “אני ה’ אלקיכם” in our pesukim- before worrying about the morality of ארץ כנען (in the following פרשת העריות), the Jews are advised to first make sure that they are serving G-d properly, which, according to our interpretation above, means worrying about following G-d to Eretz Yisrael first, then afterwards, worrying about the moral standards there. [I would also remind my readers of the famous passage from ספר הכוזרי quoted here, which teaches that even if ארץ ישראל becomes full of זמה, Jews have an obligation to live there, and the זכות of their מסירות נפש will lead to תשובה]

At the end of the day, though, this approach returns to the two-way road of faith. G-d has faith in the Jewish People- He believes and knows that we will do the right thing, for, as דוד המלך wrote: “לב טהור ברא לי ורוח נכון חדש בקרבי.” We just need to have faith in G-d that even though things do not always seem to be 100% Kosher, He is leading us in the correct direction, and will listen to our prayers for purity. Furthermore, we need to mirror His faith in ourselves, so that when we will never again question whether we can trust our brothers with our physical, spiritual, and moral interests. Only if we extend ourselves to have faith in G-d and in ourselves have we fulfilled the implicit command in פרשת אחרי מות of “אני ה’ אלקיכם.”

This week, we will be celebrating שבת הגדול. While the Shabbat before Pesach is always great (whether one will be eating take-out Chinese or freezer leftovers), in this case, הגדול is alluding to two aspects of that day: the big מסירות נפש that עם ישראל made by taking sheep, the Egyptian god, in broad daylight, and the big miracle that G-d did by ensuring that the Egyptians would not stop them. While these may seem like two different greatnesses, I believe that, based on our interpretation above, they are one and the same. By taking the huge risk of taking sheep for a קרבן, the Jewish People were expressing their faith in G-d’s ability to protect them and save them, and G-d’s great miracle was a reciprocation in the form of His faith that they would execute the מצוה properly.

In the special הפטרה for this great shabbat, read from the last פרק of נביאים, this theme of “אני ה’ אלקיכם” continues:

כִּי אֲנִי ה’, לֹא שָׁנִיתִי; וְאַתֶּם בְּנֵי-יַעֲקֹב, לֹא כְלִיתֶם. לְמִימֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם סַרְתֶּם מֵחֻקַּי, וְלֹא שְׁמַרְתֶּם–שׁוּבוּ אֵלַי וְאָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם, אָמַר ה’ צְבָאוֹת; וַאֲמַרְתֶּם, בַּמֶּה נָשׁוּב

For I am G-d and I have not changed, and you, children of Yaakov, have not been destroyed. From the times of your forefathers you have strayed from my laws and did not keep them- return to me and I will return to you, said G-d, but you said ‘for what do we need to return?'” (מלאכי ג:ו-ז)

G-d demands repentance- He has always been “אני ה’ אלקיכם,” and has had enough faith in us to keep us alive, but we, as a nation have always sinned. While the language of “שובו אלי” usually means spiritual תשובה, in the context of our idea above and the reciprocated “ואשובה אליכם,” it is clear that the Jewish people’s repeated sin is a lack of faith in ourselves. This עבירה is extremely dangerous because aside from the damage it does to relationships between Jews and to G-d, it also leaves one thinking that they are right, that they’ve done nothing wrong. All  they can say is “במה נשוב?” Why should we do תשובה?

In the context of our פרשה, I would like to suggest that these pesukim are targeted specifically to Jews in our times who continue to live in חוץ לארץ because they believe it is more spiritually safe there. Their lack of מסירות נפש (and one could say based on the גמרא, lack of יראת שמים) is a terrible sin, but they believe they are doing the right thing, because they avoid the spiritual עריות that they associate with a secular Jewish government. They choose to live in physical שעבוד to avoid a possible spiritual שאבוד. But, as we’ve seen above, one who has very little faith in his fellow Jews and in G-d does not properly fulfill “אני ה’ אלקיכם” which is specifically put in our פרשה before the actual עריות- in effect, their lack of faith to avoid sin has caused them to violate the first and second commandments with a very clear conscience. The remainder of the הפטרה goes further to say that they may even be part of the reason that our גאולה has been delayed so long. In order to ensure a speedy redemption, our exiled brothers need to regain their faith in the Jews of Israel and in G-d, and follow His call of “שובו אלי- return to my Homeland.”

As we enter חג הגאולה on Monday night, we will retell the story of יציאת מצרים, of the faith of those who followed Moshe out of Egypt to heed G-d’s call to return to His land. Later on in the evening, after a good meal, the subject matter will switch to the future- we will daven for the גאולה and beg G-d for the coming of אליהו הנביא. But, our הפטרה makes it very clear when he will come:

זִכְרוּ, תּוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה עַבְדִּי, אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אוֹתוֹ בְחֹרֵב עַל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים. הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם, אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא–לִפְנֵי, בּוֹא יוֹם ה’, הַגָּדוֹל, וְהַנּוֹרָא.  וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם–פֶּן-אָבוֹא, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם.

If you follow משה’s commandments- “חוקי” and “משפטי” (foremost among them, “אנוכי ה’ אלקיך”), then you will merit אליהו הנביא. Eliyahu will come in a time before the “יום ה’ הגדול והנורא,” and he will “והשיב לב אבות על בנים”- return the spirit (faith) of the fathers (in Egypt) on their children (in חו”ל in our times). With Hashem’s help, we will merit all of our Jewish brothers regaining the dual faith of our fathers, so that, we will bring the יום ה’ הגדול והנורא very very soon, and merit to bring the קרבן פסח on Monday night in the rebuilt and redeemed ירושלים עיר הקודש.