Friday, April 27, 2018

All that’s Holy – D’var Torah on Acharei-Mot/Kedoshim

by Cantor Shoshana Brown 

“In the name of all that’s holy” is a phrase we may hear thrown around these days In the online “Urban Dictionary” it is explained as: 
An exclamation generally spoken in exasperation or as a plea.
But what is“holiness”? What does it mean for something – or someone– to be “holy”? This week’s Torah portion is a double one,Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, covering chapters 16-20 in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). My intention here is to focus on one section of this double-portion, namely chapters 19 and 20, which deal intensively with the idea of living in a way that is “holy,” and also somehow in a way that is like God, for in this section’s introduction God says:
You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy. (19:2);
And elsewhere God says:
You shall sanctify yourselves, and be holy, for I am Adonai your God; you shall faithfully observe my statutes, and do them; I am Adonai your God.” (20:7-8)
And finally, toward the end of this section God says:
You shall be holy to me, for I, Adonai, am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be mine.  (20:26)
Throughout this section, the various prescriptions for how God would have us behave are punctuated with, “Ani Adonai Eloheikhem” – I am Adonai your God.

Before I go on, I want to skip back briefly to the beginning of this double-portion, just to remind you that Chapter 16 of Leviticus, the beginning of Acharei Mot, is also the Torah portion that is read on the morning of Yom Kippur, most often thought of as the “holiest” day of the Jewish year, where it describes the High Priest going in to the Holy of Holies to make the great atonement sacrifice that, hopefully, would restore whatever might be out of whack in the relationship between God and the Jewish people for the coming year.

But we are just going round and round the word…we still do not know what it means to be, or to act “holy.” And, beyond God’s very being, aren’t there things, or times, or phenomena that are “holy” that have nothing to do with the Jewish people, or perhaps even with human beings at all?

Somehow, the Torah writer/s expect us to know what “holy” means, without it ever being truly defined. But in chapters 19 and 20 of Vayikrawe are given some examples:
You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My Sabbaths: I am Adonai your God.(19:3)
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am Adonai your God. (19: 9-10)
You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.
You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall revere your God: I am Adonai.  (19: 13-14)
You shall not hate your brother in your heart; reprove your brother, but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against one of your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai. (19:17-18)
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am Adonai your God.(19:33-34)
These are just a few of my favorite examples, but lest you think that these are more “aspirational” than anything really definite, we hear, immediately after this admirable instruction about how to treat the “stranger” (another word for a non-Israelite immigrant in the land of Israel), words about weights and measures in the marketplace:
You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah[similar to a bushel] and an honesthin[similar to a gallon]. (19:35)
We often hear a person say: “he (or she) is a good person.” But through the eyes of God, as imagined at least by the author of Leviticus, this is not some vague notion, but something very concrete:  Did he leave the gleanings of his field for the poor and the immigrant? Did she pay her help at the day’s end? Did he take advantage of some person’s or group’s ignorance to harm them (putting a stumbling block before the blind)? Did the Israelite community treat immigrants according to the same laws as its citizens? Did you love both your fellow Israelite and the stranger in your land as yourself? In business, were all your accounts, all your measures and practices fair and honest, no cutting corners, no overcharging? These are very concrete measures of what it means to be, not just a “good person,” but “holy.” 

And yet I, and many of you as well, I suspect, do not like the word “holy” as applied to human beings. We think of the insulting phrase, “holier than thou” – a phrase which we use to disparagingly describe someone who hypocritically thinks he or she is so much better than all the rest of us, when in fact they are annoying to us both because of their haughtiness and usually because of some other glaring flaw that they do not see (perhaps selfishness or greediness, not necessarily something unlawful, but certainly unbecoming).

And it is confusing for God to maintain that God has set apart the people of Israel from all other peoples for God’s own (it sounds a lot like the phrase that the groom says to a bride under the chuppah: “harei at m’kudeshet li” – “You are sanctified to me”)…how can any group of people be “made holy”? God never could get the Israelites to behave as God wanted them to – God threatened many times to wipe them all out, God was so frustrated with them. So clearly being “holy” cannot be a permanent state of being – not for people, at any rate.

Earlier in the Torah, in the instructions about the rituals of the priests, the word “holy” is used for many ritual objects, or for meat or blood or oil or other things that get sanctified in the course of the sacrificial rituals. This usage does not seem to have anything to do with ethical behavior-rather these categories of “holiness” have to do with what scholars of religion call the “numinous” – that sort of supernatural-extra-terrestrial category that the rational mind cannot wholly comprehend.

But clearly, the passages that I read you from Leviticus 19 dohave everything to do with ethical behavior. And they also have to do with love- or rather, with compassion – feeling towards your fellow human being what it might be to be in his or her shoes, and treating him/her the way you would want to be treated. Not because you like him. You might, or you might not. And not simply because God tells you to. But because you are a human being, and you know what it feels like to be cold, or hungry, or have your wages withheld, or be treated as less than a person with the full rights of a citizen.

And now I am going to go out on a limb of sorts. I feel that in our day, we need to adopt another category of what we call “holy.” And this is a combination of the two previously-mentioned categories: something that is “numinous” in that it is related to God’s plan going all the way back to Creation and the Big Bang, irrespective of human beings; and it is also related to our behavior– how we treat this earth and our fellow creatures that inhabit this planet alongside us.

If God were to reveal an updated Torah to us today, perhaps God would tell us:
Revere the earth, the water, the mountains, the seas, and the air which I gave you to breathe. In your need to utilize the earth’s resources to live, do not cause them undo damage, harming my intricate and varied ecosystems which harbor multitudes of life which you are not even aware of.
I am Adonai your God, the Creator and sustainer of all.
In your need to stay warm, and to travel about to do your business, do not wantonly harm My soil, spill toxins into My waters, release gases which belong under the earth into the air – for in doing so you will destroy the good earth which I have given you to live on, and you will forfeit your own lives and the lives of your children and grandchildren.
I am Adonai your God, the Creator and sustainer of all.
All this I have created is holy, it may be useful to you, but it is beyond your ken. The whole earth was not created for you. You are but a part of the whole. It was created for its own sake, to be holy to Me. You must strive to live, and yes, prosper, without undue disturbance of my other creatures. Remember that they too want to live and prosper; you are just a creature of the earth alongside them. Be amazed by them; they are holy to Me.
Do not hoard. Do not be greedy – it will not prolong your life one day.
Always keep in mind the health of the planet for the sake of your children and their children after them – choosing life for those who come after you – that is the way of holiness. Be holy for I am holy. I am Adonai your God, the Creator and sustainer of all.
Hazzan Shoshana Brown serves as cantor and co-spiritual leader (along with her husband, Rabbi Mark Elber) at Temple Beth El, in . Shoshana grew up in , and once wanted to be a writer - but also a forest ranger! Now in , Shoshana combines her love of singing and spiritual leadership by serving as cantor, and her love of nature and writing by writing monthly hiking articles for the Fall River Herald News. Shoshana loves that her assignments for the newspaper have made her get out in nature through all the months of the year, and also led her to learn a great deal about the unique ecosystems of Southeastern Massachusetts and . Recently, Shoshana has added nature photography to her satchel, and that has increased her desire to get out even more!

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