Dvar on Parshat Acharei
Congregation Adath Shalom
Almost every dvar in recent weeks has begun with an apologetic reference to some web site or another—as if the person speaking didn’t have time to really work on the subject. But most of don’t have extensive libraries, and the Internet has become our main resource, so there’s no point in apologizing. I openly acknowledge, without apology, the dozens of web sites, Jewish and non-Jewish, that contributed to my observations today.
At the same time, I should also express my debt to all the anonymous rabbis I have ever known, whose names are no more meaningful to you than dvartemplate-dot-com. And I must mention my father as well. He wrote my Bar Mitzvah speech on this very sidra, focusing on the concept of aish zara (strange fire). I didn’t understand the words then, and I am still trying to make sense of them today. I was originally going to talk about strange fire in today’s dvar, but I got bogged down with a number of other ideas and aish zara is almost as strange to me today as it was fifty years ago. Luckily, the fatal error of Nadav and Avihu is mentioned a number of times in the Torah, and I am adjusting my original dvar for delivery on Parshat Pinchas—the next time aish zara is mentioned.
But I do want to call attention to one of the ideas that came up as I was preparing to speak about Nadav and Avihu. The notes on Parshat Shmini in our Humash point out that Jews are commanded in two places not to eat pork; in contrast, they remind us, dozens of commandments tell us to be careful with our words. Here are a few examples:
Be true to whatever you utter (Devarim )
Do not wrong any one in speech (Vayikra 25:17)
Do not spread tales (Vayikra )
Do not put any Jew to shame (Vayikra )
Do not curse any other Israelite (Vayikra )
Do not wrong the stranger in speech (Shemot )
Do not curse a father or mother (Shemot )
Do not violate an oath or swear falsely (Vayikra )
Do not break a vow (Bamidbar 30:3)
Do not swear needlessly (Shemot 20:7)
Do not testify falsely (Shemot )
Do not pervert the judgment of strangers or orphans (Devarim 24:17)
Do not pervert the judgment of sinners (Shemot 23:6)
(Notice how many of these require no more from us than to keep our mouths shut at the proper time.)
What has particularly struck me is how people usually think of our not eating pork when they consider the unique qualities of Jews. They don’t think, “Oh, Jews, they’re the people who are considerate of others when they speak” or “You can always trust a Jew to tell the truth” or “Sweetest people you could meet.” What is it about our tradition that made this happen? Why didn’t the purity of our speech come to define us as much as avoiding pork? And why does the Torah have to tell us over and over again to be nice to each other? Why should food define us as our everyday actions do not? In the same vein, when we think of ourselves as Jews, why do we think of our ritual practices and not the everyday things that matter just as much? Look at how many of our prophets said that God would rather have righteousness than sacrifices.
Chapters 18 of Vayikra (which ends today’s Torah reading) and chapter 19 (which begins next week’s) contain 76 of the 613 commandments enumerated by the Rambam. That’s a heavy dose: almost one eighth of the total in just two chapters. Chapter 18 deals mainly with forbidden sexual relations, then concludes with a warning to abstain from the impure family practices of the Canaanites and Egyptians. Chapter 19 contains a variety of commandments that are basic to a moral life, including some that are very well known: loving your neighbour, not cheating, getting the blood out of meat, keeping Shabbat, not defrauding, misleading, slandering.
The pattern of the chapters seems to suggest that we cannot live moral lives that are full of perversion. It is the same pattern as is found in Tehillim 34: sur mera va’ase tov: first throw the crap out of your life, then import some good stuff. Exorcise evil and perversion, then live a moral life.
Linking the two chapters are the pivot words kedoshim tihyu. They are commonly translated as the plural imperative form of “be holy.” However, I would like to consider a number of forms of the word kadosh: kiddush, kidushin, kadish, kedusha.
kiddush: taking a special drink, connecting it to a special day, intertwining two things that are special; as well, making our experience of the day more special because we are with a family or a community—people who are part of our historic past, fulfilling a commandment of God with us
kidushin: part of the marriage ceremony: two people pledging their lives to one another, dedicating themselves to each other, offering exclusive love and support
kadish: a prayer that requires community; offering public praise of God; for mourners, whose lives can seem to become meaningless, a re-dedication to the meaning offered by God
kedusha: another prayer requiring community: serving God by offering praise; emulating the angels
Years ago, when I was trying to explain some of this to my children, I used to translate the word kadosh as “special.” Children understand that concept as well as adults do, and I think we lose something when we use the word “holy” because we don’t use the word very often and we have no context for it except to describe things beyond our understanding, like God or biblical sacrifices. In fact, for some of us, “special” is probably a better word to use. At least we know what that means.
In short, when we talk about something being kadosh, we mean it is specially dedicated to a purpose related to God.
The mitzvos contained in Kedoshim lead us to kedushah; they are the Torah’s set of instructions showing us how to relate our lives to God.
But what does that mean?
remainder of this dvar owes much to Rabbi Saul Berman, whose first pulpit after
Our conceptions about holy people are frequently affected by terms that come to us from a number of religious traditions. We think of holy people living alone on a mountain top, or cloistered like a monk. In general, we think of holy people living in isolation.
Judaism does not accept this idea. Quite the contrary, it does not advocate or condone a life outside a community. Instead of suggesting withdrawal from the world, the idea of kedusha in Judaism means bringing God’s values into the world.
This can happen in a variety of ways.
A day or a season can be holy: for example, Shabbat, festivals, Yomim Noraim
Places can be
holy: for example, any place set aside for prayer; the
People can be holy: we are told to be an am kadosh; Kohanim have a particular kedusha, which keeps them from going into a cemetery or marrying a widow.
Objects can be holy: we treat Torah scrolls and other ritual objects with respect and reverence
Occasions can be holy: every time we carry out a mitzva, we come into contact with the Divine purpose.
The hundreds of occasions for doing mitzvot every day give us hundreds of occasions for strengthening our relationship with God. All of our actions, ritual and moral, can lead to a renewed relationship with God.
The Torah tells us: kedoshim tihyu. Because God is kadosh.
But what does that mean? In what way are we to be like God? What in fact do we know about God? The Rambam claim that the essence of God is unknowable—that all we can really know about God is negative: God has no body, is not subject to time, etc.
But there is one place in the Torah (Shemot 34) where God is described with positive qualities:
adonai adonai el erech apayim verav hesed ve’emet notzer hesed lo’alafim nosei avon vafesha ve’hata’a venakei.
Kedusha suggests all of those qualities: mercy, compassion, lovingkindness. If we are to be an am kadosh, we must incorporate those qualities into our lives.
Interestingly, the Rambam does not count kedoshim tihyu as one of the 613 commandments. Kedusha seems to be almost a given: “Look, you guys, you’re kadosh; stay that way. And here’s how.” It’s as if God were saying, “Come on, guys, be a mentsch.”
Far from being a separate commandment, kedoshim tihyu is a universal statement. It’s assumed about the Jewish people as a given. You will be holy [because or if] you will do all the things that I command. You start out holy. And you can remain holy, but only if you continue to glorify God, not if you develop a pushy personality and become proud of it or if you dedicate your life to the abominations of the Canaanites and the Egyptians.
We are told to dedicate ourselves to the moral principles that God has shown us. When we think of ourselves as God’s people, we are to think of being good to each other as much as we think of ritual matters. After all, God desires lovingkindness, not sacrifices.
Finally, I want to conclude with by paraphrasing the conclusion of Saul Berman’s article.
The challenge of holiness lies before us as individuals and as a community. It is to develop an awareness of God’s values that we want to integrate into our lives as tools for the transformation of our lives.
The fact is that holiness exists in the daily lives of every one of us, and our investment in creating holiness can create a powerful depth of meaning that we may never previously have experienced. It keeps us conscious of who God is, who we are, and what our mission is in the world. It is the shaping of real holiness in every aspect of our material existence.
If we merely will it, it will not happen. But if we work at it, it might happen—for us as individuals and for us as a community.