It is quite rare to read parshat Acharei Mot on Shabbat Hagadol. In non-leap years, it is generally parshat Tzav that is read on Shabbat Hagadol. And when we do have a leap year, it is usually parshat Metzora that is read as we get set to usher in Pesach. While this or any other connection between the parsha and Pesach is “coincidental”, there is much that unites Acharei Mot with Pesach.
Acharei Mot details the special Yom Kippur Temple service. Yom Kippur and Pesach were the two days on which Divine revelation was most manifest. We celebrate our becoming a nation under the Dominion of G-d and the fact that even if we sin, we remain “children to the Lord your G-d” (Devarim 14:1). Pesach is celebrated through food— it is the only time of the year when we are specifically commanded to eat both “bread” and meat—“and you shall eat the meat on that night; roasted on the fire with matzah and marror you shall eat it” (Shemot 12:8). Yom Kippur is the only day of the year when we are biblically commanded not to eat. We worship G-d both by indulging in the pleasures of the world and retreating from them. Yom Kippur was the most elaborate Temple service of the year, and the Pesach seder is the most elaborate home service of the year. Our homes—even more than our places of worship—are miniature Temples.
References to Egypt abound throughout the parsha. “They shall no longer slaughter their offering to the shi’irim” (Vayikra 17:7). The commentaries explain that the word shi’irim in this context mean demons—a reference to the idol worship practiced in Egypt. Yet the Torah does not use the word for demons, shedim, but shi’irim, meaning goats. It is two goats that the Jewish people are to bring on Yom Kippur to effect atonement. The sin of the golden calf was a natural result of the idol worship that was so much a part of Egyptian culture.
When we do slaughter meat we are commanded not to eat blood, “for the life of all living beings is its blood” (Vayikra 17:14). Throughout sefer Vayikra, the Torah describes how one is to sprinkle the blood of a behemah, a domesticated animal, on the altar—demonstrating our willingness to sacrifice for G-d. In our parsha, the Torah commands that when we slaughter a chaya, a wild animal, or of, bird/fowl, for consumption, we must cover its blood. Blood is life, and the covering of its blood reminds us of the respect we must have for all life, even as we consume animals. On Pesach, too, it was the sprinkling of the blood that meant the difference between life and death. And both the eating of blood and the eating of chametz carry the penalty of karet, being cut off from Jewish destiny.
However, the most obvious connection between the parsha and Pesach is the section that serves as the Torah reading on the afternoon of Yom Kippur—despite the fact that the text does not mention Yom Kippur. This section, dealing with the laws of sexuality, is introduced with the phrase, “like the actions of the land of Egypt that you dwelled there, you shall not do” (Vayikra 18:2). Interestingly, the Torah does not tell us exactly what it was that the Egyptians did. For the generation that left Egypt, such was unnecessary, and apparently the Torah did not need to discuss their deviant ways.
From the biblical context, it seems clear that the sexual mores of the Egyptian people were much different than those demanded by the Torah, and we are to act differently than they. It is precisely in the area of sexuality that Judaism sees the potential for holiness—and depravity. The word kedeisha, harlot, and kedusha, holiness, are distinguished by one solitary dot.
It is the fine line between holiness and desecration that our Sages wanted to emphasize on Yom Kippur. The authors of the Hagaddah interpret the phrase “vayar et anyenu, and He saw our affliction”, as referring to the enforced separation of husband and wife we suffered in Egypt. Apparently, the Egyptian people not only engaged in sexual immorality, but practiced a form of “sexual abuse”, depriving their slaves of their conjugal rights.
The exhortation not to copy the Egyptians has much broader applications than our sexual ethos. Our sensitivity to strangers, our demand for justice, the obligation to have honest weights (see Vayikra 19:36-37)—and so many other mitzvot—are rooted in our collective Egyptian experience. The Jewish people were to be formed in the most powerful, technologically advanced, and sophisticated society the world had known. Yet Egypt would not be the first to combine scientific prowess and military might with moral decadence and the perpetuation of evil. The Jewish people had to experience firsthand the result of moral failure. We were chosen so that we might create a different model of society. Like the Egyptians, we would strive to become the most advanced in the world in science, politics, and influence, but unlike the Egyptians, we would create a society befitting “a kingdom of priests”, one in which, more than anything, the rights of the stranger and the weak of society are protected.
We were formed in Egypt. Although there is much to learn from the Egyptians, once we leave, we are not to return, “for G-d has told you, you shall not go back on this path again” (Devarim 17:16). Instead, we must go to Jerusalem—if not this year, then next.