Parshas Achrei Mos: The Powerful Double Prohibition of ‘You Shall Not Do’

This week’s parsha is Parshas Achrei Mos.  The parsha begins with a detailed description of the Yom Kippur Avodah (Vayikra 16), and ends with a long list of prohibitions in the realm of arayos – forbidden relationships, and the holiness of Eretz Yisrael (Vayikra 18).

The section on forbidden physical relationships begins by prohibiting us to go in the ways of the nations of the world.  And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: I am Hashem your G-d, כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֧ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה אֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַ֡עַן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אֶתְכֶ֥ם שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּafter the acts of the land of Egypt, wherein you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the actions of the land of Canaan, that I am bringing you to, you shall not do; and in their ways you shall not go” (Vayikra 18:1-3).

Rashi wonders, what is learned from the words: וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּ, “and in their ways you shall not go”?  Once the verse tells us not to emulate the behavior of the Egyptians, and not to follow the actions of the Canaanites, what other prohibition is added with the final words of the verse?Rashi (Vayikra 18:3) answers:

אֶלָּא אֵלּוּ נִימוֹסוֹת שֶׁלָּהֶןדְּבָרִים הַחֲקוּקִין לָהֶםכְּגוֹן טַרְטִיָּאוֹת וְאִצְטַדִיָּאוֹתThese are their traditions, matters that are engraved for them so strongly, it is as if they were laws, such as (attendance to) their theaters and stadiums (days set aside for attendance at their theaters and stadiums; places where people would gather for entertainment and bullrings, respectively – Chumash with Rashi elucidated, Sapirstein Edition, Artscroll, p.215, note 3).

Not only are we forbidden from emulating their behaviors, following in their ways, and making ourselves like the nations of the world; but we are forbidden from adopting their practices which are so firmly entrenched in their cultures and societies, that these customs become like law for them.

Another question on this verse is that the phrase לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ, you shall not do, appears twice.  The first time after warning us not to emulate the ways of the Egyptians amongst whom we dwelled, and the second time after warning us not to become like the Canaanites, in the land to where we are going.

Would it not have been more concise for the Torah to state the warning of ‘you shall not do,’ only once in the verse.  The pasuk might simply have said: ‘Like the ways of the Egyptians, amongst whom you dwelled, and like the ways of the Canaanites, in the land where I am bringing you, you shall not do.’  In this structure ‘you shall not do,’ applies to both foreign nations.

What do we learn from the fact that the Torah stated the warning twice, one time in regard to each of these foreign nations?

Rabbi Shalom Rosner answers this question with a beautiful insight of the Kli Yakar.  “The Kli Yakar explains that indeed there are two separate transgressions here, one against acting like the Egyptians, and the other against acting like the Canaanites.  The Sages tell us that eighty percent of the people of Israel died during Makkas Choshech – the Plague of Darkness – because they did not want to leave Egypt, even after all the tortures of slavery they had been through in that land!  They liked where they were and preferred to remain in exile, among people who threw their babies into the Nile River, rather than journey through the desert to an unknown, and foreign, land.

“This is the first prohibition.  כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֧ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ – We are cautioned against feeling comfortable in a foreign land.  We must not be complacent in exile, and we must be careful not to act like we belong in Egypt.  We are to always remember that we are geirim (strangers) in exile, not toshavim (permanent residents) (cf. Bereishis 23:4)

“However, the second half of the verse is the flip side of the proverbial coin.  In regard to the Canaanites, the prohibition of ‘thou shall not do,’ is somewhat different.  Hashem promised us, His nation, that the land of Israel is the greatest land.  Yehoshua and Calev, two great leaders and tzaddikim, told us that it is the greatest land.  It was beloved by the Avot, and Moshe Rabbeinu longed for it greatly… and yet, despite all these promises and reassurances, and a great vision of the fulfillment of Jewish destiny in Eretz Yisrael, the people rejected the land.

“Hence, וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץכְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ means: do not reject Eretz Yisrael.

“The two ‘you shall not do’ of this verse teach us: 1. לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ – do not get too comfortable in exile, and 2. לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ – never reject or despise the land.

“… What tremendous gratitude we owe to HKB”H for allowing us to return to Eretz Yisrael in our day and age.  We need to keep the lessons of the Kli Yakar in mind.  On the one hand, we must be careful not to become overly comfortable in exile, and we must also strengthen our love for the Land, and never reject her… We must embrace Eretz Yisrael, recognize all the good that Hashem has bestowed upon her, and upon us, and we must appreciate the most precious gift that we have been granted in our generation” (Shalom Rav, v.II, p.89-90).

Today, more than seven months after Simchas Torah 5784/Oct. 7, 2023, and the flames of anti-semitism that have engulfed our world, and are continuing to rage, unabated, from east to west, and north to south, we would do well to keep the lesson of the double ‘thou shall not do’ of this verse in mind.  No matter where a Jew is in exile, he is a stranger in a strange land.  We should never become too comfortable in galus, because as the past seven months have powerfully reminded us, exile is not – and never will be – our home.  And we must never reject, and must always embrace with passionate love, the Promised Land of Eretz Yisrael.

May we merit to see her in her rebuilding, may we merit to see her in her peace, and may we merit to see all of her children come back to her loving embrace.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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