Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: One Step At A Time

“Be holy as HaShem is holy.”

Our days are full of unnerving paradoxes, and this week was no exception:

This week George Floyd’s killer was found guilty of murder despite being a white police officer, AND police with the identical training killed Andrew Brown, Daunte Wright, Ma’khia Bryant and, here in Portland, Robert Delgado.

This week we delighted in so much delightful sunny weather that lifted our spirits and warmed our bodies, AND in Portland Oregon the average historical high temperature for April is 62F degrees.

This week we know many more people who are vaccinated and feel their fears of COVID-19 fading, AND in Multnomah County the number of cases is rising significantly.

One week, and an eternity of experiences, thoughts and feelings.

In times such as ours with so much uncertainty it is good to know that our spiritual tradition can ground us. When we feel overwhelmed with all of it, Judaism brings us back down to the good solid foundation of our souls, what our tradition calls “our Rock and our Redeemer.” The Rock we hold on to for support when we would otherwise be swept away by the currents that buffet our individual selves, and in that clinging find meaning and purpose that Redeems any sense that life is only arbitrary, only overwhelming, only chaos.

The Rock and the Redeemer, or as we might call it the steady support and the answer to fears of meaninglessness, calls to us through the Torah this week: be holy as I am holy. 

Holiness is an ancient Hebrew concept is not some rarified concept of piousness; Judaism doesn’t know what “holier than thou” means. To be holy, for Jews, is to be dedicated to a particular purpose. For us, in these chaotic times, remembering to be holy is a true life saver. 

Being holy literally requires you to narrow down your focus, streamline your life, and do what matters. The Rabbis of the Talmud offer a definition that has yet to be improved:

Rabbi Ḥama, bar Rabbi Ḥanina asked, What is the meaning of that which is written: “After HaShem your God shall you walk?”(Deuteronomy 13:5)?…. is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? Hasn’t it already been stated: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24), and one cannot approach fire!

Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One: 

*Just as HaShem clothes the naked, as it is written: “HaShem made for the human beings garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. 

*Just as the Holy One visits the sick, as it is written “HaShem appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre [after his circumcision]” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. 

*Just as the Holy One consoles mourners: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. 

*Just as the Holy One buried the dead, as it is written: “Moshe was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.  – BT Sotah 14a

This is not some esoteric ideal but the simple, daily practice of compassion and caring for others. According to the mystical tradition that emerges from Judaism, this ethic of caring for others is the only way to personal salvation – of rescuing our lives from emptiness.

The Sefirat haOmer in which we find ourselves during this time between Pesakh and Shavuot invites us to perceive this simple lesson in the ultimate depths of existence, both of our individual selves and of All the world, and All time.

Today we count 25 days since Passover began; in our daily ‘Omer count, today is the day upon which we are to contemplate the ways in which the characteristic of hod influences the element of netzakh in our lives.

Hod means many things: beauty and awe, gratitude and – strangely – uncertainty. The Gate of Hod offers us the chance to consider how awe and gratitude go with not-knowing: how is this possible, this thing beyond my comprehension? This life, these hands, this soul that lifts and crashes and lifts again?

Netzakh invites us to consider eternity and endurance, and also victory. On this day in the ‘Omer count we consider how hod exists within the world of netzakh. We are asked:

The way you carry your awareness of hod, how does it speak to the netzakh of your experience?  

This day, how will you balance your awareness of the often ephemeral nature of beauty with that which endures?

This day, what gratitude helps you bear uncertainty?

This day, how might our awareness of awe bring light to the terrible ways human beings try to be victorious over ourselves, each other, and the world itself?

Be holy as I am holy says the Source of All to us. If the Rabbis are right, this path is simple: look for the mitzvah that needs doing in your presence, and do it.

This, as the Torah tells us, is “the law of life.” On this Shabbat, consider what practice of holiness brings you closer to the rock and redeemer of your life. Hold on to that, and it will hold you, this week and every week.

shabbat shalom

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