“G-d spoke to Moshe saying,” Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them “I am the Lord your G-d. Do not imitate the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled, and do not imitate the practice of the land of Canaan to which I bring you and do not follow their traditions. Carry out My laws and observe My decrees to follow them: I am the Lord your G-d”. (Chapter 18) This last sentence is repeated in reverse order.
R’ Eli Munk explained that the decrees were the non-rational laws which were given with the force of G-d’s royal decree, as they went against the practice of the non-Jewish world. Many commentators have explained that the phrase “I am the Lord” placed after most of the laws in the Torah emphasised the timeless nature of the laws and the fact that they could not be changed with the times like parliamentary legislation.
G-d then went on to list the prohibited relationships. R’ Munk wrote that these laws were urgently needed in ancient times because the contemporary nations allowed many incestuous unions. The Roman empire declared them lawful. Marriage between brother and sister was common in Egypt, and marriage with a mother, sister or daughter was recommended by the Persians, and consecrated through mythological traditions. R’ SR Hirsch wrote that the laws prevented desire from having an overriding influence in the choice of a life partner.
After listing all the prohibited relationships in detail ( This portion is read out on Yom Kippur) G-d said “Do not become contaminated through any of these (illicit relations) ; for through all of these, the nations that I expel before you became contaminated. The land became contaminated and I recalled its sin upon it and the land vomited out its inhabitants”.
R’ Jonathan Sacks wrote this week that he ceased an ecumenical dialogue with an Imam, who questioned the need for the Jews to have a land. His argument was that the Jews are a religion, not a people. This part of Acharei Mot clearly indicates that it was G-d’s intention that the Jews have a land to in which to follow His mizvot. G-d said through Moshe “ Let not the land vomit you out for having contaminated it, as it vomited out the nation before you. You shall safe-guard My charge not to do any of the abominable traditions that were done before you and not contaminate yourselves through them : I am the Lord your G-d”. R Eli Munk explained that it was to be the role of the courts to take the necessary steps to prevent the abominations from occurring.
On the first Shabbat Hagadol, the Jews prepared the lamb for the meal they would have before their departure from Egypt. They ate the sacred animal of Egypt, differentiating themselves from the local inhabitants and beginning their transformation into a people. They were about to begin their long journey to their land, during which they would receive laws to live by, such as those decreed in this parasha.