By Bettijane Eisenpreis
“Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves.”
Parashat Aharei Mot consists largely of a catalogue of sins that the priests and the people are not to commit. These range from a warning to Aaron about only entering the Holy of Holies at certain times and in a certain manner to an intimidating list of sexual offenses which the people are not to commit. At the end of the portion, God, through Moses, tells the Israelite people that He is giving them the Promised Land because the people who once lived there committed terrible sins; thus, the Land is available to them.
The message in a nutshell is: those other people sinned; I took their land and it is now empty and you can have it, as long as you behave. There is only one problem: those other people weren’t going anywhere. The land was inhabited and the folks who were there were not aware that they were the bad guys. They were going to fight hard to keep their land, which they proceeded to do – and, one might argue – continue to do right up to this day. As the Biblical tale goes on, we see that the Israelites never completely conquered the land and never became the sole inhabitants.
It’s an old story. The people who settled the great expanses of North America “from sea to shining sea” worked on the assumption that the prairie was empty and all they had to do was stake out a homestead and farm it and they’d be set. This notion led to the unpleasantness of Custer’s Last Stand, to the “Trail of Tears” upon which thousands of Indians were forced to walk from their original lands to reservations, and to a great deal of loss and enmity on both sides. You see, there were people here already and they were not, contrary to what I was taught in grade school, “savages.” They had a civilization and they were willing to fight for it.
Nature abhors a vacuum. If land exists, unless it is in the Arctic or atop a volcano, the chances are someone is living on it. And that someone may have a civilization that is different from but every bit as good as yours. You can spend a whole chapter telling people that the people they are displacing were evil – which may or may not be true – but in the long run, people are just people. Some are good, some are bad, but most are okay. And they are happy in their homes – very happy, happy enough to fight to preserve their way of life. The reverse is also true; the people legitimately seeking refuge in a country are probably not trying to displace the current inhabitants. They are just looking for a safe place to live.
Aharei Mot is always thought of as a disturbing chapter because of its long, graphic catalogue of sexual and other offenses. And it certainly is! But even more disturbing is the justification at the end – the assumption that the people who were there were bad people and if the Israelites obey all the laws, they will deserve the land. That’s just too simple.
Much of the Torah– like the Ten Commandments – is terribly important, even worth dying for. But a great deal of it is just stories, stories that help illustrate ways to live, and not to live, our lives. We can’t believe that our ancestors were always perfect. They had their share of difficulties, and they grew and learned. As we read the Torah, we need to take what is meaningful to us today and to see the rest as a wonderful story of a people, our people. The story continues, and we are still learning.