The first of this week’s Parshiot, Acharei Mot, ends with a list of prohibited Arayot. The Perek of Arayot opens with a seemingly strange Pasuk:כמעשה ארץ מצרים אשר ישבתם בה לא תעשו וכמעשה ארץ כנען אשר אני מביא אתכם שמה לא תעשו ובחקתיהם לא תלכו (Vayikra 18:3). Here, Hashem warns us about following the ways of the people of Mitzrayim and the people of Canaan. This leads us to ask a number of questions. First, what are מעשה ארץ מצרים and מעשה ארץ כנען? The Ramban (citing the Ibn Ezra) explains that the מעשה ארץ מצרים refers to Avoda Zara and מעשה ארץ כנען refers to Arayot. The balance of the Perek presents the various prohibitions of מעשה ארץ כנען, or Gilluy Arayot that prevail in the land that they are about to go into and serves as a warning so that Bnai Yisrael should not be like the Goyim amongst whom they will live. This is demonstrated through the Torah listing the prohibition of sacrificing one’s children to the Molech together with the Arayot. Worshipping Molech is not an איסור ערוה; rather it is a practice of idolatry that was common in ארץ כנען at that time. This practice involves passing one’s children through furnaces as a human sacrifice to the Molech.
Now that we understand the term מעשה ארץ כנען, we ask why does Hashem now instruct Bnai Yisrael not to partake in מעשה ארץ מצרים? They will not be among the Egyptian idolaters in the future; they will be among the immoral Canaanites. To answer this, we must understand where Bnai Yisrael’s historical and cultural background. At this point Bnai Yisrael have just exited Mitzrayim after having been exiled there for 210 years, and have been very influenced by the Egyptian culture. Now when they are entering Eretz Canaan, also a place of many Toavot, Hashem is coming to the people to emphasize to them that they are an independent nation. No longer do they have a foreign nation ruling over and thereby influencing them. The Jewish people are now responsible for themselves (for better or for worse), with their own leaders, religion, and ultimately their own culture. This Perek opens with Toavot Mitzrayim in order to show this to Bnai Yisrael.
In our days, we are influenced by so many foreign aspects of society and in the blur of modern culture it is sometimes hard for us to distinguish what is right and wrong. As Jews, we must be able to filter the filth out of our environment and not give in to the Toavot of our surroundings. Bnai Yisrael did not even realize the influence of external society on them when they came out of Mitzrayim, and that is why Hashem speaks to them in this Perek in order warn them about it. We must remember that we too cannot live Jewish lives with a foreign nation ruling over us and thereby influencing us. We must learn to take responsibility for ourselves and live in an environment with our own leaders, religion and culture, and only through that will we be able to live our lives as proper Jews.
I would like to thank Harav Roni Dinnar and Arie Katz for helping me with the information for this article.