Parashat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: Reason to Live

This week we read a doubled parasha, just as we did last week. The words that provide the title of the first parashah are Akharei Mot – “after the death”. The words refer to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s two sons who died suddenly, without warning, tragically, only a few verses of Torah ago. The second parashah is named Kedoshim – “holy ones”, taken from
 
You shall be holy as I HaShem your G-d am holy. (VaYikra 19.2).
 
Earlier this week I studied these verses with some students preparing to be called to the Torah as a bat or bar mitzvah. 
 
We looked closely at the verses following the command “be holy”. Just as the command of the Shema to love G-d is followed by the description of how to fulfill that mitzvah, so it is here: the command to be holy is followed by specific acts that make a Jew holy, verse by verse (these are verses 3-8):
 
Be in awe of your parents
Keep Shabbat
Don’t make other things into G-d
When you offer a sacrifice, make sure it is acceptable
Treat the sacrificial food with respect
If you act cynically toward it, you will be cut off from your people.
 
The students understood the underlying concept quickly: in Jewish terms, to be holy is to be dedicated to a certain distinct way of life – and that way of life demands self-respect, as well as respect toward the way of life and those who convey it (even one’s parents!). The most interesting part was the last verse: G-d does not cut someone off for disobedience. Rather, the lack of respect, of the capacity for awe and dedication, causes a person to be cut off by his or her own lack of ability to connect. That lack may be because of an inner barrier, or simply a lack of a good role model. 
 
The punishment for distancing oneself from one’s distinctive people and their practices is precisely that: distance, from a community that offers meaning, safety, and welcome to those who give themselves to it. The reward is the support one receives from linking one’s destiny to that of our people, with its fantastic history and deep sense of committed community.
 
These children, these students of Torah, with their clarity of vision and sincerity, give us hope. The worst nightmare of all is that of Nadav and Abihu- children dead, suddenly and tragically, in Syria, in Afghanistan, or in Boston. The juxtaposition of these two parshas bids us to take comfort in the promise that all children carry: that if we are open, they will remind us to live in holiness, which is to say in the belief that dedication to our Jewish ideal of standing in awe before G-d in the midst of a meaningful community is possible. Indeed, that belief is what will redeem us all.
 
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