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What Happens After the Grea High?
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

Jacob Greenberg was a tad meshugah and eventually was put in a mental hospital, where he insisted that as a religious Jew, he be served only kosher food.

The director argued and pleaded with him, for it would mean preparing Greenberg's food apart from the other food, and having the kitchen overseen by a rabbi. It would entail great trouble and expense for the hospital and they were resistant, but Greenberg was adamant. Finally, after the second week of Greenberg's hunger strike, the hospital relented.

Several weeks later, on a Saturday, the director noticed Greenberg deeply absorbed in a high stakes poker game, smoking a big, fat cigar, eating Lobster.

"Excuse me, Mr. Greenberg," the director said, someone testily. "but I thought you were such a religious man that we had to prepare only kosher food for you, and how I see you smoking and gambling on your Sabbath, eating non-kosher? How do you account for this?"

"You forget, doc… I'm mishugah!"

The paradox

The composition of the Torah portion named "Acharei" in the book of Leviticus, is probably one of the most puzzling in the entire Chumash (the five books of Moses), as it blends splendid holiness with grotesque profanity.

The portion (Parshas Acharei, Leviticus chapters 16-18) is basically divided into two sections. The first half of the portion deals with the holiest and most spiritual day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, and its magical ingredient for renewal. It discusses that rare moment, occurring once a year, when the holiest man of Israel, the High Priest, would enter the holiest space on earth, the chamber in the Temple known as the "Holy of Holies" where he would perform special services. This day was designated to bring atonement, cleansing and healing to the Jewish people and to the entire world.

Yet, soon after this, the Bible moves on to caution us against vulgar expressions of intimacy.

"Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan, where I will be bringing you," states the Torah (1). It then proceeds to enumerate a long list of sexual activity from which a human being should abstain, including intimate relations with one's father or mother, siblings, uncles and aunts, very close relatives, other married women, etc.

Finally, the Torah concludes (2), "Do not perform any sexual act with an animal… A woman shall likewise not give herself to an animal and allow it to mate with her. This is an utterly detestable perversion.'"

"Do not let yourself be defiled by any of these acts…You shall not cause the land to vomit you out when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was there before you."

How does one understand the juxtaposition between these two extremes -- Yom Kippur and immoral relations.

Wrong time, wrong place?

This same anomaly plays itself out, rather dramatically, on the holy day of Yom Kippur itself.

On the morning of this awe-inspiring day, we read the first section of this particular Torah portion, dealing with the sanctity of Yom Kippur and its special services. But then, during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur -- as the holiest day is drawing close to its peak moments -- we read the second half of this section, dealing with the above mentioned laws of sexual profanity.

The question is strikingly dramatic:

You are standing in the Synagogue during the holiest day of the year, enveloped in white (3). You haven't enjoyed a morsel of food or a drink for close to twenty-four hours. This is the day in which we are compared to angels (3), the one time during the year in which we attempt to transcend our bodies and become, for 24 hours, all soul. Yom Kippur is an island in time; an oasis of transcendence, a taste of another world.

What must your ears pay heed to during these most spiritually charged moments of the year? Not to cheat on your wife, not to violate your mother, and not to be intimate with your cow! Is this what the sages thought was on our minds on Yom Kippur standing and meditating in Shul?

Is Yom Kippur not the one time a year we would expect people to be thinking about other, more lofty, ambitions?

The enigma is increased significantly as we often read this portion following the Passover holiday. You have celebrated seven or eight days of psychological and spiritual liberation, and what do you have to hear about the following Sabbath? Warnings against full-fledged human degeneration!

The moment after

The answer to this question may be discovered in the very name of the Torah portion, "Acharei," which means "after." In Judaism, a name is significant, as it says something about the soul of the individual who carries this name (4). Similarly, the name of each Torah portion embodies the soul and the inner message of the entire portion.

In our case, however, the name of the portion, "after," seems absolutely meaningless. It's certainly not connected in any way with the actual content of the portion!

Yet it is here where we come to observe one of the most meaningful lessons in the Jewish approach to morality and spirituality. You may be flying high in heaven; your heart may be melting away in celestial ecstasy; your soul may be ablaze with a sacred fire and your heart may be swelling with inspiration. Yet you must remember that in one day from now or in one month from now as circumstances alter, you may find yourself in the muck, tempted toward profane and immoral behavior. Thus, at this critical moment of an inner spiritual explosion, you must stock up the resolve and commitment to retain your integrity during your lowliest moments that may lay ahead.

By juxtaposing splendid holiness with grotesque profanity, the Torah is teaching us that no matter how sublime you may feel at a particular moment in your life, you must remember the moment "after," the brute and beastly temptations that might emerge at a later point, under different circumstances. Never believe that what you have now will be yours forever. The tremendous holiness of Yom Kippur is only real if it will effect the "after" (as the name of the Torah portion), if it will leave its mark on the days and months that follow that may bring with them abominable urges and cravings that you could have not dreamt of during your high moments.

On the other hand, the Bible is teaching us that holiness is not reserved for those extraordinary individuals who manage to transform their hearts into heaven's mirror. As Judaism sees it, it is that very same human being who is capable of engaging in repulsive promiscuity and must be warned against it -- who can discover the light of G-d contained in the depth of his consciousness, and enter into his own "holy of holies."

The Ladder

This was also the secret behind Jacob's Ladder, "A ladder standing on the ground and its top reaching heaven (5)." Judaism is not so impressed with a soul that resides in the heavens. It is far more moved by a human ladder that is so deeply etched in the grit and gravel of earth, yet still looks up toward heaven. Even when you think of yourself as the embodiment of earthiness, remember that you are forever linked with heaven.

And conversely, even when you are standing in the deepest heavens, you ought to never forget that part of you is still very earthy (6). This will ensure that when you do fall, a little piece of heaven will still remain with you in the abyss.

(This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Motzei Shabbas Acharei 5738, May 6, 1978 (7)).


1) Leviticus 18:1-30.
2) Ibid. 23-28.
3) See Ramah and Schulchan Aruch Harav Orach Chaim section 610.
4) The Talmud tells of the great sage Rabbi Meir who would gain insight into the character of human beings as a result of knowing their names. Cf. Tanya section 2 chapter 1 and references noted in Likkutei Sichos vol. 15 p. 13. The Arizal teaches (Shaar Hagelgulim) that when parents name their newly born child, they become "prophets for the moment." G-d speaks through the parents, ensuring that the infant receives the name suited for his\her individual soul.
5) Genesis 28:12.
6) That is why the Talmud cautions (Niddah 30b), that "even if the entire world proclaims you as a tzaddik, a super-righteous individual, you should consider yourself [in some ways] like a Rasah, an evil man." What this means is, that even when you feel extremely pure, you must know that you may soon experiences all of the ugly cravings harbored regularly by an evil human being. You must know that though you feel healthy right now, you have an essential "heart-condition," as deep inside in your heart lingers a beast who may arise from his sleep at any given moment (Tanya chapter 13).
7) Published in Sichos Kodesh 5738 pp. 232-235.
It would be worthwhile to note that while the Rebbe was asking the question presented above -- how is it possible that when a Jews is standing in Shul in the midst of Yom Kippur wrapped in white, the Torah feels compelled to warn him against lowly promiscuous behavior? -- he wept bitterly, using the heartfelt Yiddish expression of "Gevald."


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Posted on April 20, 2005
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