Returning to Mitzrayim (Parashat Acharei Mot)

The author explains that this Torah portion is read twice during the yearly cycle, the first time during Yom Kippur and the second during Passover. She asks, what is the link between Yom Kippur and Passover? She then reinterprets the verses in Leviticus forbidding homosexuality.

April 19, 2008

By Rachel Barenblat

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Parashat Acharei Mot
Returning to Mitzrayim
by Rachel Barenblat on Saturday April 19, 2008
14 Nisan 5768
Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30, Pesach

Baseball season recently started up again. For me, the beginning of baseball season is the appropriate time to read Acharei Mot, the knuckleball of all Torah portions. Like the difficult – to-hit knuckleball, this parasha is resistant to “spin” yet both the pitch and the parasha bob and weave in every current of air. The direction a knuckleball will take is impossible to predict, so it’s one of the hardest pitches to hit in the history of the game; likewise, the meanings of Acharei Mot are difficult to pin down. There have been times in my life when this portion has made me feel so existentially alienated that I was unable to even swing at the ball, and at other times I have come away feeling like the ball hit me right between the eyes.

We read Acharei Mot with its troubling injunctions about sexuality (Leviticus 18:22) not once but twice during the course of a year. The first reading is on Yom Kippur, and the second reading is half a year later, on the night of the first Seder of Passover. Because I first hear these words on a day of fasting, I’ve come to associate this Torah portion with the floaty, dis- embodied sensation of going without food or drink, and the headiness of spending all day in song and prayer. This is disconcerting, because, at a time when I feel most “out of my body” the passage is all about bodies having sexual relations with other bodies that are prohibited to them. Some of them are even queer bodies.

There must be something we can learn from reading this difficult passage twice. The Zohar teaches that Yom Kippur is the one day each year when the world we live in (below) unites with the world above in a metaphorical heterosexual coupling. The immanent, embodied world of creation, which is also the world of brokenness and disconnection, unites with the world of the transcendent where all is One. The Zohar frames this union of worlds in heteronormatively gendered and hierarchical language: masculine transcendence is on top, feminine immanence on the bottom. We first read this Torah portion at the very beginning of the year, when Heaven and Earth are in their closest embrace.

This week of Passover Acharei Mot comes around again, in the regular cycle of weekly parshiyot. What’s the link between Yom Kippur and Passover? There’s an exegetical principle which holds that one can learn deep secrets about words from the place where they first appear in Torah, and I think we can apply that same principle to Torah readings when they occur more than once in the course of a year. If we first encounter these chapters of Torah when the ideal and the real are at their point of closest union, perhaps now, half a year away, we are meant to recognize the work of liberation as a movement of “the real” toward its eventual unification with “the ideal”. Year after year when we encounter these verses, they remain the same. The verses don’t change, but our understanding of them must, every year, twice a year, layer upon layer, voice-by-voice. Every reading is a new opportunity for queer interpretation.

The toughest part of the portion for me (and for many of us) is chapter 18, verse 22, which says that a man must not lie “with a male as one lies with a woman,” because it is an abomination (Leviticus 18:22, JPS). Wiser and more knowledgeable minds than mine have wrestled with this verse and provide ways for queer Jews to read it without feeling condemned or rendered invisible; I commend to you

My contribution, as the latest in an endless lineup of batters who have stepped up to take a swing at this pitch, is to look at the frame that surrounds this text for clues to why it’s in our holiness code. Why are certain sexual practices considered holy, “kadosh” and certain practices considered abomination, “toevah”? A clue might be in the chapter’s framing. The chapter starts out with the phrase, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or the land of Canaan to which I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws.” (Leviticus 18:3, JPS) The holiness code, then, says these practices of Egypt are not our practices; we behave differently. The holiness code provided a tool for making a clear behavioral break from the practices of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, and the practices of a free people on the way to nationhood.

We’re not them anymore. We are more confident in our peoplehood. We have a long history that tells us who we are. We remember how much we were but are no longer slaves in Egypt every year at this time. Them is not us. What glued them together as a people is pulling us apart.

The Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzrayim, comes from a root which means narrowness or constriction. The name Mitzrayim is a metonym for the whole experience of slavery. When we say “Entering Mitzrayim” we mean, “entering slavery,” a state of unhealthy constriction, an experience of physical and spiritual limitation. So this chapter of Leviticus can be read as an exhortation not to allow our relationships to enslave us with destructive, constrictive, or toxic sexual interactions.

To many queers, verse 22 feels toxic and constricting. That a man lying with a man “as he lies with a woman” is abomination. I can’t connect this all-too-human injunction with the infinite expansiveness of God. Even though I like Rabbi Waskow’s reading (he suggests this text may be read as a prohibition against only those homosexual interactions that involve destructive power dynamics, or as a prohibition against sexuality conducted in ways that involve closing one’s eyes to who one’s sexual partner truly is) it feels to me like an equivocation, a way of selectively rereading the text to make it palatable. Maybe this text just isn’t palatable, and we should let it go, like we’ve let go of many of the other outmoded prohibitions in Leviticus. Maybe this text no longer reflects us, if it ever truly did.

There are many texts in Tanakh that challenge me, and I’ve learned to find sustenance in struggling with these difficult passages. (The book of Joshua, for starters.) Sometimes I think the kind of creative re/reading that queer commentators like Rabbi Waskow suggest is the act that most intimately weaves me into relationship with Torah. Because this is a verse whose surface meaning I can’t accept, and Torah is not something I can reject, I feel called to keep wrestling with it until it yields an interpretation that doesn’t feel destructive.

What intrigues me this year is the framing device, that mention of Mitzrayim. Especially because we’re reading this Torah portion on the cusp of the transition into Pesach. At our seders we celebrate our liberation from slavery. We are each called to see ourselves as if we ourselves had been liberated from Mitzrayim: not our ancestors, not some mythic predecessors, but us, you and me, right here and right now. Mitzrayim has many forms. Maybe we’re enslaved to the Pharaoh of overwork. Maybe we’re enslaved to the Pharaoh of unreal expectations. Maybe we labor at pretending we’re someone we’re not. Maybe we’re hiding something about who we really are, afraid to be “out” in all of our complexities.

And maybe one of the Mitzrayims from which we need liberation is an old way of reading this Torah portion, an interpretation that feels annihilating. Maybe it’s the untenable constrictions of gender and sexual binarism, assumptions of heteronormativity or monosexuality. The real liberation we celebrate during Pesach is internal: freedom from the internalized oppression we all experience, freedom from roles and misunderstandings that bind us.

Liberation requires our agency. Each of us is called to step into the Sea of Reeds, even if the waters don’t yet seem to have receded. We are called to emerge wet on the other side, uncertain who we’re going to become but willing to take the journey of finding out, singly and together.

Reading Acharei Mot in that spirit is a way of infusing this Torah portion with Yom Kippur energy: with teshuvah (re/turning toward God), and with awareness that the ideal and the real must be brought close through the work we do in the world. What would it feel like to know ourselves to be truly liberated from expectation and constriction? The mystics talk about effecting union between Kudsha Brich Hu (the Holy Blessed One, traditionally gendered masculine) and Shekhinah (the divine presence in creation, traditionally gendered feminine.) If we could read Acharei Mot in a way that allows for liberation from all forms of Mitzrayim, could we unify the disparate parts of ourselves and make all of creation—in the word this portion uses so often – kadosh, sanctified, holy? And as for that troublesome verse 18, maybe next year we can hit that knuckleball out of the park!