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Warnings

Aharey Mot, "after the death of..." (as it means in translation) is a stern and foreboding portion of the Torah. It begins by evoking the tragic deaths of Aaron's two sons (see Leviticus 10:1-7). Then the text proceeds to describe the Yom Kippur rituals of atonement. Finally, the double portion concludes with an extended list of prohibited activities and the consequences one can expect in their wake. The combined effect surely must be intended to shake the reader/listener out of complacency and out of "sinful" ways. Alas, according to the words of the prophet Amos, found in the haftorah, these warnings alone are not sufficient motivation to return to the pious way of life prescribed in the Torah.

Instead of evoking the words of Torah as a means to inspire change, Amos, predicts that one day, presumably soon, God will "shake the House of Israel among the nations as one shakes in a sieve, yet not one pebble shall fall to the ground". (Amos 9:9) The impending consequence for Israel's sinful behaviors, that is wanton disregard for the teachings of Torah, is that they (read that us) will be "shaken" into awareness of the need to change. There is a funny little twist to the way Amos uses this metaphor. A sieve is used to winnow out the parts that the winnower does not want. But the way Amos uses the metaphor nothing, "not one pebble" falls to the ground. No one is lost. The sieve, then, as sieves go is useless because it does not winnow out anything (or anyone).

Perhaps the purpose of the sieve is not to winnow out the unwanted stuff but rather to accomplish some other goal. It seems to me that the sieve, the way Amos uses it, functions much like Yom Kippur does for us today. Both metaphorically simulate a sense of mortal danger in order to stimulate a spiritual and religious awakening. As rationalists we all but eschew the cause and effect relationship between our moral and ethical behavior and our physical well being that is explicitly described in the Yom Kippur liturgy. For Amos the shaking in the sieve that does not loose anything also implies consequences that are not "real" or physical. In this way both the shaking sieve metaphor and Yom Kippur represent an awakening of one's consciences.

The postscript to the analysis of this metaphor is one that all Jewish community leaders strive to embrace: how to awaken the conscience of their constituents to choose involvement without scaring ("losing") any of them away. Alternatively: how to make the Yom Kippur (read that any liturgical) experience feel "real", that is dangerous, enough to stimulate a spiritual and religious awakening without the risk of harm?
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah