Jon Levenson writes in Sinai and Zion that the mitzvot in the Torah aim to foster a loving and personal relationship between God and the Israelites, as each mitzvah provides a means by which an individual Israelite can acknowledge the divine presence inherent in every human act. Levenson writes:
“...the canonical Pentateuch has made laws into personal commandments, and it has made the secular into a matter of the greatest sacral concern. The Mosaic Torah is thus anything but a stern and impersonal taskmaster. It is a means of communion with a loving and personal God. The energy and spiritual power of Torah flows in no small measure from its insistence on holding these two dimensions, the outer and the inner, the legal and the affective, in a tight unity, refusing to sacrifice the one on the altar of the other” (Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, 50).
Levenson’s notion that all mitzvot in the Torah aim to strengthen the relationship between God and the Israelites is epitomized in Parashat Aharei-Mot, which, among other things, famously outlines a list of prohibited relationships for the Israelite people. Prior to outlining the prohibited relations, the Torah curiously states that, “And the doings of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelt, you shall not do, and after the doings of the land of Canaan, into which I bring you, you shall not do, neither shall you walk in their practices” (Vayikra 18:3). Our rabbinic commentaries asked why the Torah specifically states that the Israelites should not follow the ways of the Egyptians and Canaanites, and the answers of our rabbis captures the essence of what it means to commune the outer and the inner, and encourage each Jew to elevate his or her life.
In an early midrash halakhah, the Sifra argues that God’s command is a purely practical one for the Israelites, specifically mentioning those nations whose practices are most deplorable in God’s eyes, and therefore must be avoided at all costs. The midrash states:
“Whence that the conduct of no other nation was more abominable than that of the Egyptians? It is stated, “after the doings of the land of Egypt you shall not do…” Whence that the location where Israel dwelt was the most depraved of all? It is stated, “in which you dwelt…” Whence that no nation was more corrupt than the Canaanites? It is stated, “after the doings of Canaan..you shall not do.” And whence that the locations and conquered by Israel were the most depraved? It is stated, “into which I bring you”” (Sifra 131).
This midrash implies that God wants to emphasize the heights to which he wants the Israelites to climb by specifically calling out those peoples whose actions degrade holiness. Because the Canaanites and Egyptians represented the antithesis of God’s vision for the Israelites, the Torah-text makes that perspective crystal clear by specifically naming those two peoples.
Looking at this verse from God’s perspective, the Be’er Yitzhak argues that God did not take the Israelites out of Egypt so that they might emulate the Egyptians, nor is God taking the Israelites to inherit the land of Canaan so that they might emulate the Canaanites, and this verse attempts to clearly distinguish between whose identity will reign supreme in God’s eyes. The commentary states:
“The reason for mentioning Egypt and Canaan is simple: If you imitate the Egyptians--then why did I take you out of Egypt? And if you behavior like the Canaanites--why should expel them before you? It was on condition that you will not do so that I took you out of Egypt and that I shall expel the Canaanites” (Be’er Yitzhak on Vayikra 18:3).
In this commentary, the Be’er Yitzhak appears to argue that God’s in this parasha simply reflects what God wanted for the Israelites all along, a clear, distinct adherence to God’s Torah. By following these prohibitions, the Israelites will take one huge step towards making their lives distinct from all others.
Finally, taking a personal approach that can serve as a guide for our everyday lives, the Sefat Emet argues that because the actions of the Egyptians and Canaanites were of a superficial nature, God wants the Israelites to pursue holiness by way of pursuing actions that reflect the inner meaning of all human actions. He writes:
“...the intent is that in all in our deeds we not do things as they are done in Egypt and Canaan. Every deed has an inner and an outer side; the [inner] root of all things is surely in holiness, since all was created in God’s glory. This innermost point has been given to Israel. That is the meaning of [the verse]: “Let all your deeds be for the sake of heaven.” That is why the deeds of the other nations are referred to as “statutes,” as in “you shall not follow their statutes.” They have no relationship to the inner meaning of all things, and cleave to mere externals” (Sefat Emet on Vayikra 18:3, 180).
In this final commentary, not following the ways of Egypt and Canaan is a command that does not exclusively apply to the prohibitions mentioned in our parasha, but rather encompasses an overarching vision for how the Israelites should live their lives. If we choose to pursue holiness, then we must perform actions that actualize the inherent potentail of all human behaviors.
Jewish tradition does not seek to elevate discrete aspects of our lives; Jewish tradition seeks to elevate our entire lives, epitomized by the way our commentaries approach even a nuanced introductory comment prior to the prohibitions outlined in this week’s parasha. When we elevate our lives, every decision we make reflects the outer and inner meaning of all things. As we go off on break for Pesah, think about what it would mean for each of us to elevate our Judaism, for distinguishing each act of the day enables us to bring God a little bit closer to our lives, and reshape a world that reflects God’s vision for humanity.
Shabbat Shalom, v’Hag Kasher V’Sameah!