This morning’s Torah reading, Acharei Mos, included the following pasuq (18:5):
שְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם; אֲנִי ה’.
Guard My statutes and My laws which a person shall do them and live by them; I am G-d.
Chazal expound “‘Vechai bahem’: velo shayamus bahem — ‘and live by them’: and not that you shall die by them.” The Torah’s obligations do not override the value of life, and by and large one is not permitted to perform a mitzvah that risks one’s own life. (And never when the life lost is someone else’s!)
But there are exceptions. War. Or when someone is being pushed to violate the Torah in public at a time when we are being oppressed in an attempt to get us to abandon it. Most famously, the three mitzvos that are “yeihareig ve’al ya’avor — get killed, but do not violate”: murder, idolatry and sexual immorality.
So it struck me when listening to leining that the very next words after this pasuq open a discussion about sexual immorality!
אִישׁ אִישׁ אֶל-כָּל-שְׁאֵר בְּשָׂרוֹ לֹא תִקְרְבוּ לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָה; אֲנִי ה’.
Every person must not approach his flesh to any near kin to reveal sexuality; I am G-d.
The contrast is jarring, and therefore must be significant. More so, the repeated closing “ani Hashem” reflects a connection between the two pesuqim. But why?
Taking a step back to look at the context:
17:10-16 The prohibition against consuming blood. Repeatedly invoking the notion that blood is associated with the animal’s nefesh. Quoting just the last three pesuqim:
כִּי-נֶפֶשׁ כָּל-בָּשָׂר, דָּמוֹ בְנַפְשׁוֹ הוּא, וָאֹמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, דַּם כָּל-בָּשָׂר לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ; כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל-בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ הִוא, כָּל-אֹכְלָיו יִכָּרֵת.וְכָל-נֶפֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכַל נְבֵלָה וּטְרֵפָה, בָּאֶזְרָח וּבַגֵּר; וְכִבֶּס בְּגָדָיו וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם, וְטָמֵא עַד-הָעֶרֶב וְטָהֵר.וְאִם לֹא יְכַבֵּס, וּבְשָׂרוֹ לֹא יִרְחָץ וְנָשָׂא עֲוֹנוֹ.
For any nefesh, the blood is in the nefesh, and I will tell the Benei Yisrael, do not consume the blood of any flesh, so the nefesh of any flesh is its blood, whomever consumes it will be cut off. And any nefesh which eats that which died of itself or was killed by tearing, whether a native or a resident alien, shall launder his clothes and wash in water, and he is tamei until evening, then purified. And if he does not launder and does not wash, he carries his sin.
The elements I’m picking out is the use of the word nefesh, the punishment being kareis, and the facts that the sin causes tum’ah.
18:1-4 Do not act as they did in Egypt or would in Canaan — from which we learn the prohibition against lesbianism and homosexual marriage in general.
18:5 Note not only “vechai bahem“, but also the idiom of “es chuqosai ve’es mishpatai”
18:6-23 A list of prohibited sexual partners: close relatives, male homosexuality bestiality.
17:24-26 We are warned about these prohibitions in a way that revisits the previous elements:
אַל תִּטַּמְּאוּ, בְּכָל-אֵלֶּה; כִּי בְכָל אֵלֶּה נִטְמְאוּ הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מְשַׁלֵּחַ מִפְּנֵיכֶם.
וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ, וָאֶפְקֹד עֲוֹנָהּ עָלֶיהָ; וַתָּקִא הָאָרֶץ, אֶת-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ.
ושְׁמַרְתֶּם אַתֶּם, אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, מִכֹּל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה: הָאֶזְרָח, וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם.
כִּי אֶת-כָּל-הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵל, עָשׂוּ אַנְשֵׁי-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם; וַתִּטְמָא, הָאָרֶץ.
וְלֹא-תָקִיא הָאָרֶץ אֶתְכֶם בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר קָאָה אֶת-הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם.
כִּי כָּל-אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה מִכֹּל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה, וְנִכְרְתוּ הַנְּפָשׁוֹת הָעֹשֹׂת מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּם.
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-מִשְׁמַרְתִּי, לְבִלְתִּי עֲשׂוֹת מֵחֻקּוֹת הַתּוֹעֵבֹת אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשׂוּ לִפְנֵיכֶם, וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ, בָּהֶם; אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways; for in all of them these nations are made tamei, those that I throw out from before you. And the land was made tamei, and I revisited its sin on it, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.
And you shall observe my statutes and my laws and do not do any of these disgusting things, neither the native nor the resident alien who lives among you. For all these disgusting things were done by the people of the land that is before you, and the land made tamei. And the land will not vomit you out when you make it tamei, as it vomited out the nations which are before you.
For whomever does any of these disgusting things, the nefashos who do it will be cut off from among their nation.
And you shall observe my observances, lest you do any of these statutory abominations which were done before you, and you will not be made tamai though them; I am Hashem your G-d.
Looking then at this as a full section, here is a lesson I took.
The paragraph on not consuming blood establishes that living on the plane where animals live is the life of the nefesh and induces tum’ah. Later, when discussing prohibited sexual relations, the person who commits them is described by the term used for living animals, he is a nefesh. Someone who lives as a nefesh is cut off from the Jewish national soul, and the land of Israel will not harbor them.
However, the verse we’re looking at doesn’t use nefesh to speak of a life-force, it says “vechai bahem” — chaim, alive. By observing the Torah, one lifts above the plane of nefesh to purposeful existance. Transitioning from being a living animal, a nefesh, to actively chai. For a human being, chiyus implies pursuit of meaning, not merely breathing and procreating.
And so, I think the sequence may be teaching us the reason behind this limitation of choosing life — it is chayim, not merely possession of a nefesh, that holds that value. Acts which drag one down from the pursuit of meaning to an animalistic pursuit of the physical, turn one into being a nefesh, who is already inherently cut off. If sexual immorality, murder, and idolatry were allowed a higher priority than life, we would be speaking of the attribute man shares with animals, not our uniquely human selves.