Shabbat Kedoshim: Neither Inaccessible Nor Absurd

Our parashat hashavua (“section of the week”, i.e. the part of the Torah assigned by ancient Jewish tradition for this week in the Jewish calendar) begins with the most inaccessible and ludicrous of demands: 

“Speak to the People Israel and say to them, ‘be holy [kadosh], as I ‘ה your G*d am holy [kadosh]’.” (Lev. 19.2)

But when we investigate using our tried and true Jewish implements of interpretation, we find that what was thought was far from us is actually very near to us.

What does the Torah mean by kadosh, “holy”? The Rabbis who interpret our tradition, following the invitation to “turn it over and over, for everything is in it” (Pirke Avot 5.22) consider several options. To be kadosh, they offer, is perhaps to act like G*d, or, perhaps, it is to hold oneself separate. I suggest to you that it is both, and we must realize that there are times when to do one we must do the other.

This seems, as I said, either inaccessible or absurd. After all, don’t we strive for unity among all, and if so, why teach that we should hold ourselves separate? And acting like G*d, i.e. “holier than thou”, has a very bad ethical reputation in our world of political manipulation of religion.

But there is a different, more ancient insight from our tradition:

What does it mean to be “kadosh”, i.e. act like G*d?

R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: What does the Torah mean when it says You shall walk after the Lord your God? (Deut.13.5)  Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shekhinah [i.e. the Presence]; for has it not [also] been said: For HaShem your God is a devouring fire? (Deut.4.24)  

[It means that we should] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One of Blessing:

As G*d clothes the naked, for it is written: And ‘ה made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them (Gen.3.21)  

so you must also clothe the naked. 

The Holy One of Blessing visited the sick, for it is written: And ‘ה appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (Gen.18.1)  

so you must also visit the sick. 

The Holy One of Blessing comforted mourners, for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that ‘ה blessed Isaac his son (Gen.25.11)  

so you must also comfort mourners. 

The Holy One of Blessing buried the dead, for it is written: And ‘ה buried [Moshe] in the valley (Deut.34.6)  

so you must also bury the dead. (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 14a)

What does it mean to be “kadosh” i.e. be separate?

The 11th century Ashkenazi authority Rashi, using the interpretive tool of noting juxtaposition of texts, suggests that to be kadosh in this manner is to separate ourselves from the acts which are prohibited in the preceding parashah. In other words, just do what the Torah commands.

But the 13th century Sephardi teacher Nahmanides sees a more general idea. He points out that the Torah commands the priests to maintain a certain level of constant separateness from that which would render them unable to do their assigned tasks in the sacred space. (From a teaching by Rabbi Dov Landau of Bar Ilan University, Israel)

The rabbis of antiquity, when asked how we were to go on after the sacred space in Jerusalem, the Temple, was destroyed, answered that the Torah also says you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex.19.6). Therefore, Nahmanides teaches, we should all see ourselves as priests in terms of fulfilling the command to be kadosh.

Now more than ever as we struggle to know what is true and good in a world that drags everything into relativity,

as we face feelings of demoralization over the forces of greed and cynicism in our national and local social circles,

as an American politician encourages bigotry and violence against those who would oppose his urge to power,

There is a way forward, and it is neither inaccessible nor absurd: be kadosh by separating yourself from cynicism and greed and demoralization. Be kadosh by holding on to the teachings that formed your sense of ethics. There is nothing inaccessible or absurd in the clear demand of the mitzvah to clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the mourner, and, as our Gevurot prayer puts it, “keep faith with those who sleep in the dust”.

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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.