Shabbat Akharey Mot-Kedoshim: In All This Death, Where Is Holiness? Right Here at the Door

How often does Torah arouse human beings, how often does she raise her voice in every direction to awaken them! Yet they all sleep, with slumber in their sockets, neither observing nor caring….Woe to them, woe to their souls! For Torah admonishes them, saying, “Whoever is a fool let him turn aside here, the one who lacks heart.”…What is “he who lacks heart?” Rabbi Eleazar said, “Lacking faith, for one who has no faith surely lacks heart.” (from the opening commentary of the Zohar to parashat Kedoshim.)
This week we have a double parashah again. Akharey Mot, “after the death” and Kedoshim, “holy.” Both refer to plural situations: the first reminds us of the death of the two innocents, Nadav and Abihu, who died when they came too close to power they did not understand. The second is the famous command spoken to all Israel “You shall be holy as I ‘ה am holy.”
The not-uncommon juxtaposition of these two titles has long invited the teachers of our tradition to offer commentary, but not the kind you might expect. Judaism does not promise that there is some holiness that one can only acquire after death, in some post-Earth existence. Rather, we are to seek holiness in our daily lives.
But first: to define holiness in ancient Jewish terms. The term kadosh (the singular) does not mean “pious” nor does it mean that we are to withdraw from life and its challenges in order to pursue some notion of purity. Kadosh means “set apart” or “special,” in the way that we regard another person with whom we share a committed relationship to be special in a way no one else is (which is why the Jewish wedding ritual is called kiddushin, a variation on that same term).
So we might understand this command as one which urges us to hold ourselves separate. This leads to the question from what?
 
In traditional Jewish Torah learning fashion, we consider the answers offered us from within the text itself, first, the juxtaposition offered because this year we are reading Kedoshim together with Akharei Mot. The word death is all too close to us in these days, on so many levels of perception and experience:
Deaths of human beings we witness through media – from natural disasters, by way of human evil, or because of human mistakes.cDeaths of human beings who live within our own communities – African Americans, Trans people, all those at risk because someone values their lives less.  Deaths of those near to us, or even the looming prospect of our own. Everywhere we look: from honor killings to occupations to flash floods to police killings to drug wars to serial killers
And there are other kinds of death – we experience the death of trust, of hope, of the belief in tomorrow that helps the living to summon another sunrise.
In all this death, where is holiness? It is right here: in the act of one who, in the face of death, finds a way to give, to smile, to lend a hand.
In the fall of 2016, after the unthinkable rise of white supremacy to the White House, one of our next door neighbors came over just to introduce himself, to say hello and to offer his support as our neighbor.
In the days after the inauguration, we received phone calls from strangers who simply wanted to call a Jewish organization and let us know that not everyone agrees with the hate speech and hate crimes directed against us, which increased 86% in 2017.
Last Wednesday evening, a member of the Council for American Islamic Relations knocked on our door with a beautiful orchid as a gesture of support in the aftermath of an attack on two Jews this past Monday in Brooklyn.
This is holiness in the best sense: the act that says we hold ourselves apart from this evil. This is the only holiness that Jewish tradition knows. May we all carry these examples in our own hearts, be comforted by them, and from them be inspired to believe in that which compelled our neighbors to act to reach out to us – and may we never cease to believe in the holiness of reaching back.
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Shabbat Parah: This Calf Makes Sense, This Cow Does Not

This Shabbat is called Shemini, “eighth”, because the parashah begins with an account of the eighth and final day of the ritual of ordination into the priesthood for the very first High Priest, Aaron, and his sons, who were now his assistants. For seven days they have carried out a precise order of sacrifices and purity practices, and now they are ready, body and soul, to take on the role of intermediary between G*d and the People of Israel.

What is the first thing you do when you are finished with the process of getting ready for a new role? Maybe you are pregnant and preparing for the role of mother, or maybe you are graduating college and preparing for the role of participatory citizen in your community. Perhaps you are finishing orientation for a new job, or completing training for a volunteer responsibility, or getting ready for a mikveh that will turn a significant page in your life.

It seems a very positive, promising moment. But then the High Priest receives his instructions for his first official act: “Take a calf [עגל] of the herd for a sin offering” (Lev. 9.2) A sin offering? How depressing on the first day of the new reality! 

The Zohar explains:

“Aaron was commanded to offer a calf as a sacrifice – because it is the offspring of a cow – to atone for that other calf that Aaron made, thereby sinning against the cow, who is unblemished, consummation of the faithful of Israel.” (Zohar, Shemini 3.37a) 

This calf of the herd is offered in atonement for the golden calf. That much is clear. But what is the other, unblemished cow?

The other cow that the mystical tradition mentions here is the cow for which this parashah is also named: Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Cow, or, more specifically, the Red Heifer. 

This third of the special Shabbatot occurring in the weeks before Pesakh is named for the special additional Torah that we read. It describes a recipe for creating a substance that purifies a person who has been in contact with a dead body. The recipe requires a sacrifice of “a red cow without blemish” which is completely burned. Its ashes are mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and “crimson stuff”, and the resulting ashes are kept in a safe place, to b used for “waters of purification” when necessary.

The curious part of this, and the reason why this is the cow that does not make sense, is the following: the priest who oversees the concoction becomes impure and must undergo a purification ritual of some hours. The same is true of the person who moves the ashes. How is it that handling something pure makes one impure?

No one, not the great sages of yore and certainly no one since, understands this. It is said that Shlomo the King, who was by legend said to be the wisest of all human beings who ever lived (tradition relates that he even knew the languages of all the animals), was unable to fathom the secret of the this red cow, and after contemplating it, he was said to have declared “I said, ‘I will become wise, but it is far from me’ .”(Kohelet 7:23) 

This leads us to the Two Kinds of Halakhah; the mishpat and the hok. Mishpat is the Jewish law that makes sense, such as the prohibitions against killing or stealing. Hok, on the other hand, is the category of kashrut, of the do’s and don’t’s around holy days, of this strange cow purification ritual.

For us who swim in the nearly endless sea of Jewish tradition, there will always be mystery, and we should learn to welcome it. It keeps us humble: we don’t understand everything, and we can’t. It keeps us mindful: I am doing this because I am a Jew, and there’s no other reason. And it helps the under-used imaginative side of our brains keep up with the over-emphasized rational side.

And it is a good reminder that when we stand on the edge of a new experience, there will be that which we cannot understand, and cannot possibly prepare for. And more: one does not enter a new experience “clean” of all that one has ever been. Standing on the edge of what will be, we must recognize that we bring all we ever were with us. Both cows, the one that symbolizes all you understand and the one that reminds you of all that you don’t, come with you.

Thus we go forward: humbly, realistically, humanly.

“Out of chaos He formed substance, making what is not into what is. He hewed enormous pillars out of ether that cannot be grasped.” – Sefer Yetzirah 2.6

“Out of chaos He formed substance, making what is not into what is. He hewed enormous pillars out of ether that cannot be grasped.” - Sefer Yetzirah 2.6

Note the uncanny resemblance of these “enormous pillars” to the Hebrew letter shin which is used to indicate God’s protective Name Shaddai. The website Students for the Exploration and Development of Space explains: These eerie, dark pillar- like structures are actually columns of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust that are also incubators for new stars. The pillars protrude from the interior wall of a dark molecular cloud like stalagmites from the floor of a cavern. They are part of the “Eagle Nebula”…a nearby star forming region 7,000 light-years away in the constellation Serpens. (http://seds.org/hst/M16Full.html)

Parashat hashavuah: Terumah – Lift It Up

The parashat hashavua this week begins with a command: “Tell the Israelite people that when they take up an offering for Me; every person whose heart is moved to generosity can make that offering.” (Exodus 25.2) This begins the narrative of the building of the Mishkan, the sacred space in which the Israelite people would focus upon being in God’s Presence (Hebrew: Shekhinah).
 
True, many generations later we are used to the teaching that God’s presence may be found anywhere; but that does not keep us for needing special, sacred places ourselves – places that serve as agreed-upon meeting places for us to come together for no less than the purpose of experiencing theShekhinah, the close and intimate Presence of God. 
 
You who belong to a shul, or are considering joining one, might not have thought of your shul that way: as a place where you come to focus upon the experience of being immersed in God’s Presence. But if the place is devoid of that possibility, it may be beautiful, but it’s not a mishkan, a dwelling place for the Shekhinah;  conversely, the shabby rooms of our European shtetl dwelling ancestors were sometimes so full of that awareness that those who prayed there were able to rise above their everyday miseries because of the bliss of that awareness.
 
The parashah goes on to describe exactly how the Mishkan is to be built, in great detail. Facsimiles of this structure have been constructed on the web, in miniature, and – I’ve been told but have not seen – in full size, somewhere in the Negev. Gold, silver, copper, tapestries of rich fabric, woods of various kinds – but the most important detail is given us at the start: all must be built out of material which is terumah, translated in two ways: “separated”, and “lifted up”.
 
Separated (Rashi): Halakhah guides us to understand that out of all our regular possessions and resources we should separate the first and best out for God. This is also the idea behind the ma’aser, “tithe”, which our farmer ancestors were to bring of their crops. Until the appropriate tithes had been separated out and given appropriately, the rest of the crop was not kasher (literally, “fit”)and could not be eaten. That which is kosher, in other words, is that which reflects our own spiritual awareness of the blessing of a successful crop, or job, or project. It is not ours, not all ours – as the President put it in a sound bite that could not be savaged quite to death, “you didn’t build that”. None of us builds alone: we are part of a fantastic network of support, resources and factors beyond our control, and our response to our own successes should be humble gratitude, not the self-celebrating arrogance of believing that we have power.
 
Lifted up (Zohar, II): As the Jewish mystics intuited, everything in our existence is made of the same stuff. Everything has within it a spark of G-d; not only human beings but all of the material world – even gold, silver, copper, tapestries of rich fabric, and woods of various kinds. One should not overlook the holy potential of any object, much less any person. What makes the difference is, as the Torah indicates, the “heart moved to generosity”. The spark of holiness in any object is lifted up through the mindfulness of the one who makes the offering. That is true of the offering we make of our words and acts as well.
 
An offering made by rote, or with resentment, can never be part of a mishkan. 
No volunteer work undertaken for a shul done with anger, annoyance or the hope of being noticed will ever evoke the Shekhinah. 
But every offering made by one whose heart is moved to generosity, large or small, obvious or unmarked, lifts up the offering and its holy potential all the way to God’s Presence. 
This is the only way we make a mishkan, a shul, into a sacred space, and it is more beautiful by far than a gilded, ornate building created without true terumah.
 
May you see the beauty of your offering of volunteer activity, tzedakah, and committee work as a true terumah and the very sacred essence of the Mishkan, both inside and outside of organized Judaism.