Parashah Ponderings

After Death, Let There Be Holiness

Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim / פרשת אחרי מות־קדשים
Torah Portion: Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27

God’s presence is often felt most acutely in the wake of tragedy. The death of a loved one may bring estranged siblings together, a house fire in which possessions are lost (but not life) may cause the owner of the house to reassess his or her system of values, a battle with disease may awaken hidden talents within the one who is ill. In these cases, our human experience mirrors what occurs routinely in nature: following a wild fire, it is common for wild flowers to bloom throughout a ravaged landscape. These signs of light, hope and beauty following a period of darkness point to the manifestation of the Source of Goodness, God.

The title of this week’s double Torah reading, Aharei Mot-Kedoshim, surprisingly sheds light on the flourishing of God’s presence in a place of despair. I say surprisingly because it is really just a coincidence that that these words come together as they do. The dual title comprises the first identifying words of two portions: “aharei mot” or “after death,” refers to God’s relating to Moses the priestly ritual of expiation after the death of Aaron’s two sons; “kedoshim ti-h’yu” or “your shall be holy,” are the opening words to a section of Leviticus that echoes and augments the Ten Commandments. Our sages hardly intended to convey a lesson through the chance juxtaposition of these titles. Nonetheless, I believe the title accurately reflects the possibility for holiness to flourish wherever and whenever we let it, even in times of darkness.

In Parashat Kedoshim, the Torah teaches “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). In so doing, perhaps, the Torah is trying to communicate that our job on Earth is to make God’s holiness tangible in the world through our actions. Rather than leave us to wonder how to live lives of holiness, though, the Torah in this reading enumerates dozens of mitzvot that touch on a wide range of human experiences.

Chief among the mitzvot in Kedoshim is the command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). Rabbi Akiva, the great sage of the 2nd century, declared this verse to be the greatest principle of the entire Torah (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4)! Akiva saw loving kindness as THE most important teaching of the Torah; no mitzvah could be said to be more essential in living lives of holiness than this one.

Exactly what it means to love one’s neighbor as your self could be seen this week through the global response to the devastation wrought by an earthquake in Nepal. The earthquake itself is projected to have destroyed 250,000 buildings and killed upwards to 15,000 people. No sooner had reports of the most massive earthquake in Nepal in 80 years begun than corporations, charities and governments from around the world were busy raising funds for rescue and recovery operations, emergency health care, and rebuilding. Meanwhile, rescue workers have also come to the aid of the Nepalese from the United States, Israel, United Arab Emirates, and dozens of other nations. Sadly, it sometimes takes a horrible tragedy like this to remind the world that, above all our disputes, we are called upon to love one another as we would like to be loved. For better or for worse, after death there can be this holiness.

Meanwhile, on our own shores we witnessed rioting in Baltimore over the wrongful death of a man arrested by the police. Where there could have been peaceful protests and efforts toward improving the lot of Baltimore’s citizens, we saw violence and looting. Following one man’s death, there was chaos, not holiness. We can only pray that holiness will rise from the rubble left behind by thugs and their misguided followers. We can only pray that Baltimore and other cities, who suffer from racial and economic imbalances, will soon emerge better and stronger than they are now and that all their citizens will show others the love they themselves wish to be shown.

Aharei mot, kedoshim. After death, let there be holiness. From darkness, let there be the light and love.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

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