Parshat Acharei Mot contains one of the more iconic phrases in the entire Torah. After repeatedly stressing the importance of mitzvah observance, the Torah concludes with the phrase “v’chai bahem,” which loosely translates into “You shall live by the mitzvot.” This evocative phrase encapsulates the interaction between religion and human experience between mitzvot and life itself.
From a strictly halachic standpoint, this phrase establishes the principle of pikuach nefesh. With rare exceptions, halachic violation is always allowed and even sanctioned when it is absolutely necessary to preserve life. Perhaps the most classic adaptation of this principle is the mandated violation of Shabbat for urgent life-saving interventions. When religious obedience threatens life, it is temporarily set aside. Committing an erstwhile sin to preserve life isn’t an over tally of the halachic system. The “system” itself prioritizes the preservation of life and the system itself stipulates the performance of actions that would generally be prohibited.
However, this seminal phrase resonates far beyond the limited halachic application of pikuach nefesh and the demand to violate most prohibitions to preserve life. This phrase frames our view of religion and its relationship to human experience. Religious experience isn’t contradictory to human experience or antithetical to human progress. Religion is meant to elevate and ennoble the human condition, and for this reason the regulatory restrictions of halacha or the aveirot are mostly suspended when life is threatened. The mandate to prioritize life reflects the manner in which religion intends to support and enrich life. Too often religion is severed from life, and it is viewed as something unrelated to or even antithetical to our existence. This phrase of “v’chai bahem” casts the entirety of halachic experience as supportive of human life.
This verse, though valuable in general, is extremely significant in the current context of parshat Acharei Mot. The Jews had been enslaved within a foreign pagan culture for over 200 years. Having been emancipated from the Egyptian pagan scene they were now poised to enter the Land of Israel—itself a haven for seven pagan empires. Of course, the Torah is primarily concerned with the attrition of mitzvah observance and warns repeatedly about this scenario. However, the Torah is also concerned about potential culture creep: even if mitzvot are adhered to, the underlying values of these pagan cultures can potentially creep into the Jewish imagination and pollute the religious experience. The totalitarian regime of Egypt subjugated its slaves, dehumanized them and degraded human life. For its part, the local Canaan culture celebrated blood rituals including human sacrifice, blood consumption and other forms of savagery. These cultures didn’t celebrate the value of life and certainly didn’t imagine religion as ennobling of human dignity and human progress.
Even if the Jews maintain strict halachic fidelity, they may be influenced by these perspectives and consider their own religion as poised “against” human life and human progress. To battle against this misconception, the Torah stresses “v’chai bahem”: Jewish religious experience supports and promotes life. If the two temporarily clash, halacha is temporarily altered to enable and sustain life. The principle of pikuach nefesh transmits a broad-based message about religion and its relationship to life itself.
This doctrine doesn’t merely frame our view of religion, it also frames our view of God. For 2,000 years humanity assumed that God was angry and vengeful. To be sure, this viewpoint was understandable, as Man had witnessed wave after wave of Divine punishment. He had been expelled from Eden, condemned to wander the earth as a nomad, flooded by waters of the abyss, and scattered as the seed across the earth. From this perspective, God did appear angry and baleful.
Avraham revolutionized religious consciousness: He spoke of a one God Who was responsible for all reality and Who was fundamentally compassionate and desirous of human prosperity. The calamitous events of previous centuries weren’t Divine acts of spite but the unfortunate consequences of errant and degenerate moral behavior. God coveted the advance of the human condition and the improvement of the human condition. To reinforce this revolutionary concept of a just and caring God, Avraham felt compelled not merely to preach this idea but to personally enable it. He wasn’t merely a philosopher discovering God but also a humanitarian relieving sorrow and suffering while advancing the human condition. He didn’t merely “talk the talk” but also “walked the walk.” He didn’t merely speak of a compassionate God but served as His agent in the delivery of welfare and prosperity.
Avraham’s legacy, and our mission, is to preserve this Divine image: to remind the world that God is full of mercy, peace and loving-care for His creatures. Having been liberated from the pagan culture of Egypt and about to encounter the savagery of the tribes living in Israel, this concept was endangered. The Torah reinforces this message at a delicate stage in history in which is may be obscured.
History has evolved and the human imagination has progressed beyond the cannibalism and actual blood sacrifice of antiquity. Modern thought has stressed the value of the individual and the dignity of human life. However, even in the modern era, the image of God continues to be distorted and misconstrued. Though most monotheistic religions view God as benevolent, radical or fundamentalist, Islam has portrayed Him once again as an angry God Who celebrates the suffering of innocents. The notion that G-d is joyful when His creatures—any of His creatures—suffer implies a God of anger and of wrath. Hallel is curtailed for most of Pesach into what is known as “half-Hallel.” Despite the abundant happiness surrounding our departure and liberation, only a truncated Hallel is recited. The Beit Yosef claims that since Pesach concludes with the drowning of Egyptians at the Red Sea, our Hallel is muted. Even though these villains persecuted us for over 200 years, there is no joy in Heaven when God’s creatures suffer—even if historically and morally they must suffer.
In the modern era, Islamic fundamentalism has hijacked the face of God and disfigured it. The messages of Islamic fundamentalism imply a God of hate and anger and, sadly, this image has penetrated the modern consciousness. Many modern people associate religion with death and hatred. Ultimately, this isn’t just a vandalism of the image of God in our world but a primary cause for the widespread abandonment of religion. Once religion is presented as antithetical to universal moral instincts it alienates moral sensibility and disillusions people about religion. September 11 was primarily a human tragedy but also constituted a defacing of the Divine presence in our world.
The challenge to cast religion as v’chai bahem and “embracing of life” is just as compelling in our generation as it was for the generation that departed Egypt and was about to enter the pagan circus of Canaan. The mission to broadcast an accurate view of a compassionate God is an enduring challenge of Jewish history.
By Moshe Taragin
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.