"That He May Live By Them"

  • Harav Baruch Gigi




With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzva,
this year b'ezrat Hashem, of our twin sons,
Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise






“That He May Live by Them”

Translated by Kaeren Fish




The Torah discusses the list of forbidden sexual relations (“arayot”) in two chapters of Sefer Vayikra.  Chapter 18 presents warnings against such relations, while chapter 20 sets down the punishments for violating these prohibitions.


The question immediately arises: why does the Torah interrupt the subject with chapter 19? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the discussion of the punishment to follow immediately after the warning?


We may start by pointing out that in both chapters the list of forbidden relations appears in the body of the chapter, surrounded by a “framework.”  The respective “frameworks” contain some details which are identical, but also some which differ – and, as we shall see, these differences are of critical significance for our understanding of the essence of these prohibitions and of our parasha within the context of Sefer Vayikra.




It is well known that Sefer Vayikra is divided into two parts: from the beginning until chapter 17 it deals with the laws pertaining to the kohanim, while from chapter 18 onwards it is mainly focused on the concept of sanctity (kedusha): the sanctity of man, the sanctity of time, and the sanctity of the Land of Israel.


In the context of chapter 18 the emphasis is on the fact that Bnei Yisrael are destined to enter the promised land, and that the privilege of living in the land is dependent on them distancing themselves from the ways of both the Egyptians and the Canaanites, whose cultures are steeped in licentiousness and abominations.  Bnei Yisrael are warned to keep far from their practices in order that the land will not expel them.


Chapter 18 also contains other commands:


“You shall perform My judgments and observe My statutes, to follow them; I am the Lord your God.  And you shall observe My statutes and My judgments, which a person should perform, that he may live by them; I am the Lord.” (4-5)


“And you shall observe My statutes and My judgments, and you shall not perform any of these abominations…” (26)


The significant addition in these verses is the remark, “that he may live by them.”  What it means is that a person who wishes to live before God is obligated to perform His statutes and judgments.  The obvious corollary is that if the judgments and statutes do not allow a person to live, if they entail the ending of his life, then he is not obligated to follow them.  As the Gemara teaches (Yoma 85b), “‘That he may live by them’ – and not that he should die by them.” If their observance requires that a person give up his life, then his life takes preference.  This is the sanctity of life.




Moving on to chapter 20, we first encounter the punishment meted out to a person who offers his child to Molekh, and to one who consults soothsayers and diviners.  Thereafter we find two introductory verses:


“You shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy, for I am the Lord your God.  And you shall observe My statutes and perform them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” (7-8)


The closing verses of the chapter would seem to be a repetition of the closing verses of chapter 18, except for one important addition – the matter of sanctity: “And you shall be sanctified unto Me, for I am sanctified” (26).


Another matter of emphasis is the absolute demand for performance of God’s judgments: “all of My statutes and all of My judgments” (22) – an absolute demand in relation to which the vision of “that he may live by them” falls away.  What this means is that we are faced with a special obligation: it is not sufficient to live life simply and naturally; we are required to introduce elements of sanctity into our lives, and to understand that life devoid of sanctity is not a supreme value.  In chapter 18 the value presented to us is, “that he may live by them.”  In chapter 20 we move forward: it is not simply “life” that is being presented, but “a life of sanctity.”  The sanctity of life is an important value, but only when we are speaking of a sanctified life.  Life without sanctity is not a value in and of itself; death is preferable to the absence of sanctity.


What brings about the profound change that occurs in between these two chapters, these two world-views? What raises us from the “sanctity of life” to the level of “a life of sanctity”? The answer would seem to lie in chapter 19.




Chapter 19 is the reason for the profound differences between chapters 18 and 20.  Chapter 19 imbues the life of the Jew with sanctified content.  Sanctity is made up of certain rules of behavior governing interpersonal relations, and the Torah views these relations as an integral part of the overall system of sanctity, alongside the commandments pertaining to the relationship between man and God.


Chapter 19 is characterized by its long list of commandments, some between man and his fellow man, others between man and God, and all interwoven in such a way that they cannot be separated.  The essence of this unit is a reality in which the encounter between man and his fellow man is actually, at the same time, an encounter between man and God.


Chapter 19 also addresses another point: the relationship between man and God, where man stands before God and is sanctified with His sanctity.  In parashat Kedoshim, the first of the ten utterances – “I am God,” does not arrive from an external source.  Rather, it arises from within our reality, from within each commandment.  Life itself, as it were, is lived with God and before God.  The verses reflect the proper state of consciousness – “I have placed God before me always.”  This is the meaning of a life of sanctity.


Thus, chapter 19 is fundamental to the sanctity of man; it is essential for the quest to live one’s life in sanctity.  When we add the demands of chapter 19 to the demand “that he may live by them” in chapter 18, we arrive at a new reality: a reality in which, if sanctity is violated, there is room to demand that a person give up his life rather than commit the violation.


This understanding finds expression in the location of the unit discussing Molekh.  In chapter 18, the prohibition of Molekh appears as part of the larger unit.  In chapter 20, in contrast, we find this prohibition at the very beginning.  The reason for this would seem to be that offering a child to Molekh involves three elements, representing the three transgressions which violate sanctity in the most acute way: idolatry (which is also involved in consulting soothsayers), murder, and sexual immorality.


(Why sexual immorality?  The sanctity of the union between man and woman finds expression in the birth of children who are raised to serve God. A person who offers his child to Molekh demonstrates, retroactively, that the conception and birth of the child were not directed properly.)


Following the discussion of sacrifice to Molekh and its punishment, and the introductory verses about sanctity, the Torah lists the punishments for those who engage in forbidden sexual relations.  This comes after it has been established that there are values of sanctity that take preference over life, leading us to understand that there are some requirements of sanctity which cannot be violated, and if they are then a person pays with his life, either through execution by the court or by “karet.”




The only punishment mentioned in chapter 18 is the land’s expulsion of its sinful inhabitants.  The land is unable to tolerate the most elementary human form of impurity, namely, incest.


With regard to Eretz Yisrael, too, we see a development and progression. In chapter 18, human impurity causes the land to vomit out its inhabitants; in chapter 20, God comes to loath the nation, as it were, because they are not holy.  Only a holy nation merits a land “upon which God’s eyes rest”, a land that is connected to holiness, a land in which life is lived – by definition – before God, a land flowing with milk and honey.