Morality in Sexual Relations and the Land, Impurity and Sanctity

  • Rabbanit Sharon Rimon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

 

Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


This parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.

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PARASHAT ACHAREI MOT - KEDOSHIM

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Dedicated l'iluy nishmat R' Chanoch ben R' Baruch Ya'akov (Mr. Henry
Schiffmiller) z"l, whose sixth yahrtzeit is on 13 Iyar.

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In memory of Pearl (Perel bat Chaim) Wadler z”l, whose yahrtzeit is on 14 Iyar.

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In memory of Charna bath Morthe Reiter z”l, of Debrecen, Hungary,
whose yahrtzeit is on 15 Iyar.

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Morality in Sexual Relations and the Land, Impurity and Sanctity

By Rabbanit Sharon Rimon

 

 

Significance of the Introductory Verses

The parasha of Acharei-Mot concludes with a list of prohibited sexual relations, in chapter 18. The chapter opens with five verses of introduction, followed by the prohibitions.

 

Let us examine the introductory verses:

(1) God spoke to Moshe, saying:

(2) Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them, I am the Lord your God.

(3) You shall not act (lo ta’asu) in the manner (ke-ma’asei) of the land of Egypt, where you dwelled; nor shall you act (lo ta’asu) in the manner (ke-ma’asei) of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you,

Nor shall you follow their customs (chukkoteihem).

(4) You shall perform (ta’asu) My judgments, and observe My statutes, to follow them; I am the Lord your God.

(5) And you shall observe My statutes and My judgments – which, if a person does them (ya’aseh otam), he shall live by them; I am the Lord.

 

In these verses, the verb a-s-h (to do, act, perform) is repeated six times. In verse 3 the acts in question are the customs of Egypt and of Canaan, concerning which God commands, “You shall not do.” Verses 4-5 speak of God’s judgments and statutes, which “you shall do.”

 

Thus, the text distinguishes between acts which must not be done, and those which are worthy and proper.

 

The same distinction appears with regard to chukkot - “statutes” or “customs”: in verse 3 we are told, “Nor shall you follow their customs.” In contrast, verses 4-5 tell us and then repeat that “You shall observe My statutes.”

 

·  What are the actions that must not be done? And why are they attributed specifically to Egypt and to Canaan?

·  What are the judgments and statutes which we are obligated to observe and perform? Does the Torah refer here to all of the commandments, or to specific commandments that are opposed to the customs of Egypt and Canaan?

·  Finally – why do these verses repeat each statement twice? Instead of saying, “You shall not act in the manner of…” concerning Egypt and then again concerning Canaan, these could be combined into the same verse: “You shall not act in the manner of the land of Egypt or of Canaan.”

 

Similarly, verse 5 is a repetition of verse 4; in both we are told that Bnei Yisrael must observe and perform God’s statutes and judgments.

 

Rashi elaborates on these verses at great length, including all of the commandments within their scope:

 

“‘You shall perform My judgments’ – this refers to those matters that the Torah sets down as judgment. Were they not to have been written, it would be proper to institute them. ‘And you shall observe My statutes’ – this refers to those matters that represent the King’s decree; matters which the evil inclination questions, asking why we should observe them, and with which the nations of the world taunt us. For example, the eating of pork, the wearing of sha’atnez, and purification through purifying water. Concerning these the Torah says, 'I am the Lord' – I have decreed it for you; you have no right to absolve yourselves of them.” (Rashi on Vayikra 18:4)

 

According to Rashi’s interpretation, the statutes and judgments concerning which Bnei Yisrael are exhorted in these verses are all the commandments of the Torah. The category of “judgments” includes all of the “logical” laws which man could perceive as being necessary even without any Divine command. The “statutes” include the “obedience” laws, which man would not invent on his own; these are decrees that God has set down, and we observe them even without understanding them.

 

In view of this, we understand that the practices of the land of Egypt and those of the land of Canaan, which stand in contradiction to the statutes and judgments of God, represent a culture that is altogether rotten, and which the Torah commands us not to imitate.

 

In commenting on verse 3, Rashi describes these cultures thus:

 

“‘The manner of the land of Egypt’ – this tells us that the practices of Egypt and of the Canaanites were more depraved than those of the other nations, and that the place where Israel dwelled was more depraved than any other.”

 

According to Rashi, then, verses 1-5 of chapter 18 stand alone; they are not meant specifically as an introduction to the section on forbidden sexual relations.[1]

 

Ibn Ezra limits the prohibitions contained in these verses:

 

“Since the Torah mentions the matter of sacrificing to the demons, which was practiced in Egypt, therefore this unit is juxtaposed. And the forbidden sexual relations concern the land of Canaan, as is made explicit at the end.” (Ibn Ezra on 18:2)[2]

 

According to Ibn Ezra, the “manner of the land of Egypt” that the Torah refers to here is the sacrificing to demons, which was mentioned in the previous chapter (17),[3] while the “manner of the land of Canaan” refers to improper sexual relations, which are addressed further on, in chapter 18.[4]

 

In other words, verse 3 serves to connect the two subjects that are treated in succession: the prohibition of consuming meat that is slaughtered outside of the Mishkan (in chapter 17), and the prohibition of improper sexual relations (chapter 18). Verse 3 connects these by pointing out that both of these represent gentile practices that must not be adopted. One is the custom of Egypt; the other is the custom of Canaan.

 

According to Ibn Ezra’s explanation, it is clear why verse 3 repeats the exhortation, “You shall not act in the manner of…” twice: to his view, the verse is warning Bnei Yisrael concerning two different practices, which are the respective customs of two different nations.

 

Ramban quotes Ibn Ezra’s view and notes that “Our Sages were of the view – as recorded in Torat Kohanim – that the Egyptians, too, were seeped in licentiousness of all manner of sexual impropriety… and this is true.”

 

In other words, according to Ramban, the “manner of the land of Egypt” refers also to the prohibited sexual relations.[5]

 

According to this view, the opening verses of chapter 18 are an introduction to the section on sexual immorality only; they are not connected to what preceded them.

 

Thus, we have three alternative views as to the function of the opening verses. We shall now turn our attention to the rest of the chapter, and then come back to these verses.

 

Structure of the Chapter

Chapter 18 goes on to present a long list of prohibited sexual relations (verses 6-23), which we shall not discuss here.

 

The chapter concludes as follows:

(24) You shall not defile yourselves with all of these, for with all of these the nations which I cast out from before you were defiled,

(25) and the land was defiled, and I visited its iniquity upon it, and the land throws out its inhabitants.

(26) Therefore you shall observe My statutes and My judgments, and you shall not perform any of these abominations – neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger who dwells in your midst.

(27) For all of these abominations were practiced by the people of the land who were before you, and the land was defiled,

(28) So that the land will not throw you out for defiling it, as it threw out the nation that was before you.

(29) For anyone who performs any of these abominations – the souls who commit them shall be cut off from their nation.

(30) And you shall observe My ordinance, not to commit any of the abominable customs that were practiced before you, so that you do not defile yourselves with them; I am the Lord your God.

 

These verses conclude the unit setting out the prohibited sexual relations. When the Torah says, “Do not defile yourselves with all of these,” it is clear that the reference is to “these” things, mentioned in the previous verses – i.e., the prohibited sexual relations.

 

Upon reading these concluding verses, we are immediately reminded of the opening verses of the chapter:

·  The chapter opens with the words, “I am the Lord your God” (verse 2), and concludes with a reiteration (verse 30).

·  In the opening verses, the verb a-s-h appears six times, and in the conclusion it features another five times. This shows that the beginning and ending of the chapter address the same subject; they tell us what “actions” or “practices” must not be adopted, and which “actions” or “practices” are proper to adopt.[6] Similarly, in both the introduction and the conclusion the practices that should not be adopted are attributed to the other nations, and the crux of the exhortation is not to imitate their ways.

·  In the introductory verses, the command to observe God’s judgments and His statutes (verses 4-5) appears twice; likewise, in the concluding verses there is a repetition of the command to observe God’s commandments (verses 26 and 30). Attention should be paid to the fact that verse 26 contains a verbatim repetition of verse 5: “And you shall observe My statutes and My judgments.”[7]  

·  In the introductory verses we find the customs (chukkot) of the nations (which must not be adopted), as opposed to God’s statutes (chukkot) (which must be observed). In the concluding verses we once again encounter the customs of the nations (defined as “abominations” and forbidden) and, in contrast, God’s statutes (which must be observed).

·  The word “land,” which is mentioned twice in the introduction – “the land of Egypt” and “the land of Canaan” – appears five times in the conclusion; altogether there are seven appearances of the word, testifying to the unity of the entire chapter.

 

The parallels between the opening and concluding verses indicate that the former serve to introduce the chapter and, together with the concluding verses, form a complete structure. It would seem, therefore, that we may summarize the general structure[8] of the chapter as follows:

 

      Introduction (verses 1-5):

-       I am the Lord your God

-       Do not follow the practices of Egypt and Canaan

-       Observance of God’s statutes

      Central content (6-23):

-       list of forbidden sexual relations

      Conclusion (24-30):

-       Impurity in the wake of forbidden practices (and being thrown out by the land)

-       Observance of God’s statutes

-       I am the Lord your God 

 

From the concluding verses it is clear that the practices and customs that are not to be adopted are the prohibited sexual relations. It would seem, therefore, that the opening verses (in which the nature of the “practices” and “customs” are as yet unclear) likewise refer to these prohibitions, as Ramban maintains. (We recall that Ramban connects the “practices of the land of Egypt” as well as the “practices of the land of Canaan” with the list of forbidden sexual relations.[9]) 

 

Why the Repetition?

A review of the concluding verses shows that they contain much repetition:

·  We are told three times that the nations committed these abominations and were defiled by them (24; 27; 30)

·  Twice we are told not to act in the manner of the nations (26; 30)

·  Twice we are exhorted to observe God’s ordinance (26; 30)

·  We are told in the beginning and then again at the end that we must not become defiled through all of these practices (24;20)

·  Twice the Torah makes mention of the defilement of the land and the land throwing out its inhabitants (25;27-28)

 

As we read these verses we have a feeling of “we get the idea.” Why all the repetition?

 

The prohibited sexual relations, as the concluding verses make clear, are extremely grave offenses, since they lead to defilement of man and of the land. Owing to the severity of these prohibitions, the Torah resorts to repetition and a heavy emphasis on the impurity and defilement that is caused by such practices. The repeated exhortations are meant to warn people to keep very far from them.

 

In addition, it is specifically because the realm of sexual morality is so corrupt among the nations amongst which Bnei Yisrael dwelled – Egypt and Canaan – that there is a need for repeated and emphasized warning as to the severity of the prohibitions involved, so as to strengthen the nation’s avoidance of the behavior that was so strongly rooted and prevalent in the culture around them. It is necessary to reiterate and to emphasize to Bnei Yisrael that the customs of these nations – which, according to their culture may even be considered “holy” acts, performed in the context of pagan ritual – actually involve impurity.

 

In the concluding verses we encounter the root t-m-a (impurity) six times; the title “abominations” appears four times, and there are three places where the departure from the land is referred to as “throwing out” (literally, “vomiting”) – clearly, a word with very negative connotations, as Ibn Ezra notes on verse 25: “Whatever a person vomits is considered disgusting by him, and he will not return to it.” As he covers these verses, the reader cannot but be struck with a feeling of loathing, a clear sense of the impurity that is conveyed by these verses in relation to forbidden sexual relations.

 

One single, brief verse could not adequately convey the emotional import of this message, which is necessary specifically with regard to these prohibited sexual relations; a message so strongly at odds with the culture surrounding Bnei Yisrael.

 

Along with the above explanation, we may also try to understand the function of the repeated verses. It turns out that these are not mere repetitions that emphasize the same message over and over; rather, each repetition serves a function.

 

In the concluding verses we are told twice not to follow the practices of the nations:

 

In verses 26-27: “You shall not perform any of these abominations… for all of these abominations were practiced by the people of the land who were before you….”

Again in verse 30: “…Not to commit any of the abominable customs that were practiced before you.”

 

In both cases, the abominations that are forbidden are attributed to the nations dwelling in the land – i.e., only the Canaanites. There is no mention of the practices of the land of Egypt, and Ibn Ezra seems to be justified in identifying the “practices of the land of Canaan” as sexual immorality, while the Egyptians are identified with other forbidden practices.

 

When we re-read the verses we discern that the conclusion emphasizes the defilement of the land in the wake of sexual immorality, and it may be for this reason that only the sins of the Canaanite nations are highlighted in the concluding verses.

 

But is this the only issue that is emphasized in the conclusion? Let us return to the final verses.

 

Two Types of Impurity

The opening words of the conclusion are, “Do not defile yourselves (or “render yourselves impure”) with all of these,” while the concluding words are, “Do not defile yourselves with them.”

 

These two brief phrases, at the beginning of the concluding section and at its end, speak about the impurity that is caused in the wake of sexual immorality. It must be noted that they refer not to the defilement of the land, but rather to the defilement of man.

 

At the center of the unit stands the defilement of the land, and this issue is repeated over and over, to the extent that we may mistakenly conclude that the defilement affects the land only. The text therefore points out and emphasizes, at the beginning and at the end, that sexual immorality causes the defilement of man. (Indeed, this is obvious, as the laws of sexual immorality do not belong to that category of laws that apply only in Eretz Yisrael. Rather, they are obligations that apply to every Jew in every time and place, and it is clear that these forbidden practices defile – first and foremost – the person himself.)[10]

 

This being the case, the verses address two issues: the defilement of the land, and the defilement of man.

 

Let us divide the verses on the basis of this distinction:

a. Defilement of man:

The verses that focus on man are the “framework” verses (beginning and ending):

(24) Do not defile yourselves with all of these

For with all of these the nations… were defiled…

(29) For anyone who commits any of these abominations –

The souls who commit them shall be cut off from their nation

(30) And you shall observe My ordinance

Not to commit any of the abominable practices that were performed before you

And do not defile yourselves with them.

 

According to the above verses, the prohibited sexual relations cause, first and foremost, the defilement of man. The nations were defiled through sexual immorality; Bnei Yisrael are warned not to be defiled through such practices. A person who is defiled through sexual immorality is punished by being cut off from the nation. The defilement of a person in the wake of sexual immorality is universal; it applies even outside of the land.

 

b. Defilement of the land

In Eretz Yisrael there is additional significance to the prohibitions of sexual immorality, beyond the defilement of man. Eretz Yisrael, with its special status and level of sanctity, is defiled when its inhabitants commit transgressions of sexual immorality.

The verses that address the defilement of the land are the middle ones:

(25) And the land was defiled and I visited its iniquity upon it, and the land throws out its inhabitants.

(26) Therefore you shall observe My statutes and My judgments, and you shall not perform any of these abominations – neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger who dwells in your midst.

(27) For all of these abominations were practiced by the people of the land who were before you, and the land was defiled,

(28) So that the land will not throw you out for defiling it, as it threw out the nation that was before you.

 

Let us now compare the two sections and see how the same theme is treated in each:

Defilement/impurity:

-             Defilement of man: (24) Do not defile yourselves with all of these, for with all of these… the nations were defiled….

-             Defilement of the land: (25) And the land was defiled.

Punishment:

-             Defilement of man: (29) For anyone who performs any of these abominations, those souls will be cut off from their nation.

-             Defilement of the land: … And I visited its iniquity upon it, and the land throws out its inhabitants.

“Observance”:

-             Defilement of man: (30) You shall observe My ordinance.

-             Defilement of the land: (26) Therefore you shall observe My statutes and My judgments.

Not performing abominations:

-             Defilement of man: “Not to commit any of the abominable practices.”

                  - Defilement of the land: “And you shall not perform any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger who dwells in your midst. For all of these abominations were practiced by the people of the land who were before you, and the land was defiled.”

Addendum:

-             Defilement of the land: (28) So that the land will not throw you out when you defile it, as it threw out the nation that was before you.

 

This structure, categorizing the verses in two groups – defilement of man and defilement of the land – explains the “repetitions” in the verses. It clarifies that the repetitions arise from the fact that the Torah is discussing two subjects within the same unit.

 

For both subjects, the verses begin and end with “impurity,” as a framework. However, in the part that deals with the defilement of the land, there is an additional verse of conclusion that has no parallel in the discussion of the defilement of man: "So that the land will not throw you out when you defile it, as it threw out the nation that was before you” (28).

 

Seemingly, this verse is a repetition of the same idea that has already been stated in verses 25 and 27: the land is defiled and throws out its inhabitants. Is verse 28, then, intended merely for further emphasis and reinforcement?

 

If we examine the verse carefully, we see that it contains a significant addition: it emphasizes the location of Eretz Yisrael. In verses 25 and 27 we are told that the sins of the nations led to the defilement of the land, and therefore the land threw them out. Verse 28 adds two elements:

a.                       Am Yisrael also stands a chance of being thrown out of the land, if it becomes defiled. (This, apparently, is not assumed to be obvious. Perhaps, amongst the generation of the desert – and perhaps those that followed – there was a perception that only the other nations could be expelled from the land, while Am Yisrael would remain there even if they sinned.)

b.                      Only with regard to Bnei Yisrael does the Torah say, “When you defile it.” Concerning the other nations we are told only that they were defiled, or that they committed abominations, and that as a result the land was defiled. When it comes to Bnei Yisrael, in contrast, we are told, “When you defile it.” There is an emphasis on the connection between the impurity of the nation and the defilement of the land.

 

Summary

Verses 24-30 serve as a summary and conclusion to the unit on forbidden sexual relations. These verses repeatedly emphasize the impurity arising from sexual immorality. Two dimensions of impurity are addressed in these verses: defilement of man, and defilement of the land.

 

Defilement of man is the opening and concluding subject of the unit; this indicates that it is of great importance (although there are relatively few verses devoted to it, and although it is not addressed in the main body of the unit).

 

Defilement of the land is addressed in the main body of the unit with deliberate emphasis (more words are devoted to this discussion; in addition, the word “land” is repeated in the opening and concluding verses a total of seven times, testifying to the centrality of the subject of “the land”), such that the reader is left with the impression that defilement of the land is the main subject of the unit.

 

Defilement of man is what leads to defilement of the land.

 

However, defilement of man also stands alone: even outside of the land, sexual immorality of any of the variations listed here represents an abomination; it defiles the person and must not be practiced.[11]

 

In Eretz Yisrael there is additional significance attached to the prohibitions associated with sexual morality, insofar as they cause the defilement of the land; as a result, the land expels those living within it who are defiled with sexual immorality.

 

Egypt and Canaan

Let us now return to the opening verses of this unit.

 

In verse 3 the Torah mentions two nations whose practices and customs must not be adopted:

“You shall not act in the manner of the land of Egypt, where you dwelled;

nor shall you act in the manner of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you….”

 

Thus far, we have interpreted this injunction as referring to two cultures in proximity to which Bnei Yisrael lived. The Torah emphasizes the contrast between their practices, which must not be adopted, and the judgments and statutes of God, which Bnei Yisrael are commanded to follow.

 

We posed the question: why are these two cultures mentioned separately, in a manner that seems like superfluous repetition, rather than simply stating the idea in a single verse: “You shall not act in the manner of Egypt and Canaan”?

 

It appears that we can now recognize the significance of the two nations being mentioned separately.

 

Both the nations of Canaan and the nation of Egypt practiced sexual immorality. However, the sins of the nations of Canaan led to the defilement of the land, and to their expulsion, while the sins of Egypt caused “only” the defilement of man.

 

Both types of impurity or defilement are grave, each in its own right, and each must be avoided.

 

The text emphasizes – both at the beginning of the chapter (verses 1-5) and at its conclusion (verses 24-30) – that the prohibitions of sexual immorality cause both types of impurity: they cause the defilement of man and the defilement of the land.

 

In order to emphasize these two subjects, the verses describe each type of defilement separately.

 

The opening verses describe the practices of Egypt (causing defilement of man) separately from the practices of Canaan (causing defilement of the land), while the concluding verses start with the defilement of man, move on to the defilement of the land, and then conclude with the defilement of man.[12]

 

Sexual Immorality and Defilement of the Land

The connection between sexual immorality and the defilement of the land is emphasized very clearly in our verses, but it actually appears much earlier in the Torah, in Bereishit 9:18-29, where we find the story of the inebriation of Noach.[13]

 

The Torah describes the sin of Cham, who saw his father’s nakedness and told his brothers. What exactly was Cham’s sin? The commentators offer many different interpretations, but it is unanimously accepted that it concerned some manner of sexual impropriety.

 

Cham’s brothers (Shem and Yefet) covered their father’s nakedness. Following the incident, Noach curses Canaan (Cham’s son), and blesses Shem and Yefet.

 

This narrative raises several questions, most of which we shall not be able to address here. However, let us consider just one question: why does Noach curse Canaan, while the narrative makes it clear that it was Cham who sinned?

 

Once again, several different views are suggested by the commentators. We shall focus on the explanation of Radak:

 

“He saw that both he and his descendants would be wicked for all time.”

 

According to Radak, Canaan was cursed not because of the specific deed committed by Cham, but because Noach understood that such an act testified to the essentially negative essence of Cham and of all his progeny. Cassuto[14] elaborates on this idea:

 

“Noach’s words cursing Canaan and speaking of his subjugation by Shem and Yefet are not directed towards Canaan, the son of Cham, personally; rather, they are directed towards the nation of descendants of Canaan – his progeny after many generations, who are as far removed from Canaan, their ancestor, to almost the same degree that they are from Cham. This is not an instance of a son receiving a punishment for his father’s transgression. The perspective is a far broader one. Even those later descendants are not being punished for the sin of their primal ancestor. Rather, Cham here is a symbol of the descendants of Canaan, with whom Bnei Yisrael are familiar, and Ham’s actions are a symbol of the actions of the descendants of Canaan. This is the meaning of the expression, 'the father of Canaan.' The curse applies to the descendants of Canaan – not because of the sins of Cham, but because they themselves follow the practices of Cham, because of their own sins, which resemble those attributed to them in this symbolic narrative.”

 

The curse bestowed on Canaan tells us that the sin here is not an isolated, chance incident, but rather an act testifying to inner essence. This essence is not restricted to Cham himself; it passes to his descendants, too. Canaan is cursed because of his negative essence, as expressed in Cham’s act. If the curse were to have been directed at Cham, perhaps we would not understand that the story shows up an essential characteristic that is continued among Cham’s descendants. Perhaps we would not understand that the curse is a curse for all generations, as a result of the defective essence of this branch of humanity. The story of Cham’s act testifies to his essence, which is defective in the realm of spirituality.

 

Who are Cham’s descendants?

 

In chapter 10 of Bereishit, the Torah lists the generations of Noach’s sons. Among Cham’s descendants we find Mitzrayim (Egypt), Pelishtim and Canaan. And indeed in various narratives in Tanakh there are negative actions, in the spirit of those of Cham, father of Canaan, that are attributed to these nations. These actions testify to a defect in the sexual realm.

 

The Egyptians were known for their unbridled licentiousness; for this reason Avraham was forced to introduce Sara as his sister, lest they kill him in order to take her.[15] The same scenario is repeated twice with regard to Avimelekh, King of Gerar, the Philistine.[16] Dinah is raped by Shekhem, son of Chamor, the Chivvite – one of the Canaanite nations.[17] The customs of Sedom (which is described in Bereishit 10 as falling within the boundaries of the land of Canaan)[18] are also related to sexual immorality.

 

As we have seen, in Vayikra 18 the Torah attributes specifically to Egypt and to Canaan the practices of sexual immorality that are forbidden to Bnei Yisrael. The verses in Vayikra create a very clear link between the observance of the laws of sexual morality and the habitation of the land.

 

In chapter 10 of Bereishit, in the list of Noach’s descendants, the only borders that are mentioned are those of Canaan. One explanation for this is that chapter 10 introduces us to nations and places that will be mentioned later on in various narratives in the Torah. Within this framework, the borders of Canaan are important as a background to the story of Avraham and God’s promise to give him the land.

 

Several commentators maintain that the mention of the borders of Canaan hints that this is an important land, destined to be promised to the chosen nation.

 

To the above we may add that chapter 10 already hints to the connection between sexual morality and dwelling in the land. The sons of Cham who are mentioned in chapter 10 are known to be transgressors in the sphere of sexual morality (as reflected in the narrative at the end of chapter 9). It is specifically in association with them that the borders of the country are described – unlike the other nations – and those borders delineate the land that throws out from its midst those who practice sexual immorality, as we are told in Vayikra 18.

 

The land that is mentioned by its borders as being the land of the descendants of Cham is the land to which Avraham is commanded to go. It is the land that is promised to Avraham and to his descendants. It is the land over which an eternal conflict will rage between the children of Cham and the children of Bnei Yisrael, over many generations. It is the land that throws out the children of Cham because of the sexual immorality that characterizes them. It is the land which Bnei Yisrael – descendants of Shem – will receive as God’s land. It is there that the profound connection between them and God will find expression; a connection first reflected in Noach’s words in 9:26 – “Blessed is the Lord God of Shem.”

 

The unit setting out the laws of sexual morality in Vayikra 18 once again reminds Bnei Yisrael that the land – God’s land – throws out the nations of Canaan from its midst because they are defective in the sphere of sexual morality. The Torah once again warns Bnei Yisrael not to falter in this sphere. The warning comes not only because this culture is one that is geographically close to them and difficult to set aside, and not only because it is a severe prohibition. The warning is emphasized here because the whole subject of the land being given to Am Yisrael (while simultaneously being taken from the Canaanite nations) is bound up with the subject of sexual morality.

 

Bnei Yisrael are admittedly the descendants of Shem, and they are the chosen nation, God’s nation; for this reason they have received the land. However, the verses in Vayikra emphasize that even Am Yisrael may lose the land if they do not observe the prohibitions of sexual immorality: “So that the land does not throw you out when you defile it.”[19]

 

“You Shall be Holy…”

If, on the other hand, Bnei Yisrael will be careful to observe the laws of sexual morality, they will be worthy to live on the land, God’s land. Moreover, they will be worthy of sanctity – as promised in Parashat Kedoshim. Immediately after the unit presenting the forbidden sexual relations in chapter 18, Parashat Kedoshim opens with the words:

 

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

 

Rashi links this verse to the preceding unit:

 

“‘You shall be holy’ – [This means,] Separate yourselves from sexual immorality and from sin. For wherever you find a boundary against sexual immorality, you also find sanctity.”

 

Indeed, in Parashat Kedoshim there is a repetition of the laws of sexual morality (chapter 20), and the emphasis there is not on the purity entailed in forbidden sexual relations, but rather on the sanctity[20] that is created by observance of God’s statutes, observance of proper sexual boundaries.

 

Thus we read in the introduction to these laws in chapter 20, verses 7-8:

 

Sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am the Lord your God.

And you shall observe My statutes and perform them; I am the Lord Who sanctifies you.”

 

Likewise at the end of the unit, in 20:26 –

 

“You shall be holy unto Me, for I, the Lord, am holy….”

 

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

[1]  Admittedly, in commenting on verse 2, Rashi does quote the opinion of Rebbi: “’I am the Lord your God…' Rebbi said: It is clear and known before Me that they are destined to separate themselves concerning forbidden sexual relations in the time of Ezra; therefore I come to them with a decree.” According to this view, these verses are connected to the laws of forbidden sexual relations. However, Rashi’s primary exegetical approach in verses 2-5 separates these verses from the laws that follow them.

[2]  In some editions this unit appears at the end of chapter 17.

[3] Verse 7; see Ibn Ezra ad loc.

[4]  See Ramban’s commentary on verse 3, where he quotes Ibn Ezra’s opinion and explains it.

[5]  However, concerning the “statutes and judgments” mentioned in verses 4-5, Ramban explains that the Torah refers not only to observing the prohibitions of sexual immorality, but that “My judgments” refer to “the laws set out in Parashat Mishpatim.”

[6]  To be more precise it should be noted that in the concluding verses, the root a-s-h appears only in relation to the practices that should not be performed, while with regard to God’s judgments and statutes the Torah uses the verb sh-m-r (to observe).

[7]  With the small addition of the word “atem - you”, as it were: As for you, you shall observe… This addition emphasizes the contrast between Israel and the nations.

[8]  This represents a preliminary definition; further on we shall examine the concluding verses and address their precise content, in light of which we shall amend the structure and make more accurate note of content.

[9]  It appears that the opinion of Ibn Ezra, which connects only the “practices of the land of Canaan” with the prohibitions, is based on the fact that the concluding verses refer only to the inhabitants of Canaan as having engaged in all of these abominations – which are the forbidden sexual relations: “For all of these abominations were practiced by the people of the land where were before you…” (this idea is repeated a few times in the concluding verses). 

[10]  See Ramban’s commentary on verse 25, addressing the connection between sexual immorality and the defilement of the land. This issue will be addressed at the end of the shiur.

[11]  See Ramban’s commentary on verse 25, where he claims that “all of the commandments are meant, essentially, for the inhabitants of God’s land.” According to this view, the significance of the prohibitions concerning sexual morality is directed principally towards Eretz Yisrael; Ramban elaborates here on the connection between sexual morality and the defilement of the land (but at the same time declares this to be a “lofty and unfathomable secret”). Below we shall address this special connection.

[12]  As noted at the beginning of the shiur, the command to observe God’s judgments and statutes also appears twice in the opening verses, and now we understand why: corresponding to the two “practices of the nations,” symbolizing the two types of impurity, we find twice mentioned the observance of God’s commandments. Likewise in the concluding verses, we find the command to observe God’s commandments mentioned twice: once in the part that is related to the defilement of the land, and again in the part that is related to defilement of man.

[13]  The scope of this shiur does not allow for elaboration on this narrative. For further discussion the reader is referred to my thesis on the subject of “The Tower of Babel,” pp. 142-155.

[14]  From Noach Until Avraham, pp. 102-117.

[15]  Bereishit 12:10-20: “Avram went down to Egypt… and it will be, when the Egyptians see you, they will say: She is his wife. And they will kill me, and let you live… and the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was exceptionally beautiful… and the woman was taken to Pharoah’s house….”

[16]  Bereishit 20: “Avraham journeyed from there and he sojourned in Gerar. And Avraham said concerning Sara, his wife, 'She is my sister.' And Avimelekh, King of Gerar, sent and took Sara….” Yitzchak undergoes a similar experience, in Bereishit 26: “Yitzchak went to Avimelekh, King of the Pelishtim, in Gerar… and the people of that placed asked about his wife and he said, 'She is my sister' – for he feared to say, 'My wife,' lest the people of the place kill him because of Rivka, for she was of beautiful appearance….”

[17]  Bereishit 34:2 – “Shekhem, son of Chamor, the Chivvite, saw her… and he took her and lay with her and forced her.”

[18]  In Bereishit 10, the borders of Canaan are sketched in the most general terms, but Sedom and Amora are mentioned explicitly. It appears to be no coincidence that the Torah chooses to list them.

[19]  As we saw above, this verse is of central and critical importance in the conclusion of the unit.

[20]  See articles by M. Leibtag and A. Bazak in the VBM archives.