Parshat Acharey Mot – by Cathy Harris

Parshat Acharey Mot: Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30
April 12 2014
Cathy Harris

In Acharey Mot, we read about our ancestors’ rituals

of purification from sin. We are also warned to abstain from certain sexual practices. At this time of year, as spring approaches and our spirits lift, we also celebrate Pesach. We recall our slavery and how we were freed. We celebrate justice. Today, we’re going to pull all of these topics together.

In Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys, she says: “After describing the ritual of purification, Acharey Mot continues with instructions about holiness in sexual relations. Decisions about intimacy must be made as part of our pursuit of holiness, which means our motives must be pure, our intentions clear and the implications considered regarding our actions and their effects on the whole.” [Gold]

From the Torah, we learn that sexual intimacy and holiness belong together. In our striving for holiness, we are asked to be constantly aware of our true motives, our intentions and our behaviors, both good and not so good. Being intentional in our intimate lives helps us to grow as people of valor, fully engaged and committed to our families and friends and to acts of loving kindness and efforts to heal the world.

In today’s parsha, we read: “18 …The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. 3 According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall NOT do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall NOT do… 4 You SHALL observe My judgments and keep My ordinances…

6 None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him to uncover his nakedness…Do not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God… Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves.

25 Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants…30 You shall keep My charge not to engage in any of the abhorrent practices that were carried on before you, and you shall not defile yourselves through them: I

the Lord am your God.”

It is clear from this reading that some of the Israelites were in fact sorely tempted to engage in hurtful and abhorrent practices and that God is angry about it.

Thomas Merton once said: “If we don’t know our own story well, in its darkness as well as its light, we cannot know the story of ‘the other’ in its fullness. And if we cannot empathize…with other people’s stories, how much can we know about…the world?” [Merton]

Why, in Acharey Mot, do we find warnings against a breakdown of familial sexual boundaries along with warnings against child sacrifice – almost in the same breath? I would suggest that it is because both violence towards our children and sexual exploitation are egregious violations of our faith.

While we are unlikely these days to worship Molech or pass our children literally through flames, it’s a terrible truth that, here in Rochester and across the country, children become sexual commodities, passed repeatedly through the flames, their childhoods burned away.

I’m talking about the sexual exploitation – defilement – of children, our modern equivalent of passing them through the fire. A Topic that is difficult to discuss but impossible to avoid as we work to heal the world.

How does such a thing happen? Children run away from hard lives at home and end up on the streets, “couch surfing” from house to house, relying on anyone who’ll give them a place to sleep. Runaway and homeless youth who don’t access shelters are, in fact, three times more likely to engage in “survival sex”, trading their bodies for food, shelter and “protection.”

Youth in jail are also vulnerable, forced to submit to staff, threatened with injury, offered gifts and protection or offered drugs or alcohol to engage in sexual acts.

Traffickers search out youngsters who’ve been damaged in some way and are most vulnerable to exploitation. Looming large on this list are LGBT youth who’ve been rejected by their families, kids with disabilities, immigrant kids with language and cultural barriers and sexually abused children.

At this time of year, we sit together and, at our bountiful tables, read about a harsher time: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; and God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…The Egyptians were cruel to us…and imposed harsh slavery upon us…We cried out to God, the Lord of our fathers…God heard our voice…He saw our suffering…and our distress…and God brought us out of Egypt.”

Yet, in our sometimes cruel world, babies and children are forced to suffer. At least 100,000 American children are sexually exploited through pornography or prostitution every year. And it’s often a family member, friend or boyfriend who exploits them – for financial gain.

Tragically, there is also a yawning hunger for such children. The flames of Moloch lick at them. The average teen entering the sex trade in the U.S. is 13 years old, and sexual trafficking is the third biggest criminal business behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking. Nearly two million children, most of them girls, are sexually trafficked. Children as young as infants are abused in child pornography and commercial sexual trade.

And twenty five percent of these “child sex tourists” around the world are U.S. citizens. As reported by The Center for Youth, hundreds of children in our community are being commercially sexually exploited here and now. Just last month, a Rochester man pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of a minor.

In January, two sisters pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of two teenaged girls. In July of last year, a 29-year-old Rochester man was charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of teenaged girls. And, a year ago, a Brighton man pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of six young girls and two Rochester men were arrested for sex trafficking and prostitution of a 16-year-old girl. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Fortunately, in 2008, New York State implemented the Safe Harbour for Exploited Children Act. This was a pivotal moment in protecting and securing services for sexually exploited youth.

Prior to the Act, sexually exploited kids involved in illegal activities didn’t get the protection of Family Court. Instead, they were prosecuted, traumatized yet again. The Act guarantees that sexually exploited youth are treated as child victims and can be offered services to pave the way for better lives. Of course, it would help if it was better funded.

The Monroe County Safe Harbour initiative, led by the Center of Youth along with other agencies, helps kids who have been commercially sexually exploited. The goal of the project is not to lock them up for prostitution but to provide caring services like safe housing and case management and a community-wide education campaign and advocacy. These folks have their work cut out for them.

You can help. You can get involved and advocate for more money for Safe Harbour and for our nonprofit agencies in Rochester that help vulnerable children. If you have any concerns about the well-being of a young person you know, please call
1-800-THE-LOST. You can also encourage your children to come to you if they are worried about the well-being of a friend or acquaintance.

You can stay informed about legislation to protect children from exploitation, and you can write and call your elected officials voicing your opinions. You can also contribute generously to Center for Youth and you can call them to find out how you can help. The Center always needs volunteers to tutor kids, answer phones, work in afterschool programs and much more.

Together, as a just community, let’s work together towards the day when no child is forced to pass through the fire.

Shabbat Shalom.