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Parshat Aharei Mot Kedoshim 2018
From the sublime to the tawdry, that’s our first parsha today. From the Yom Kippur ceremony with a detailed description of how the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies on the one day a year he is permitted inside, to a listing of illicit sexual relations, basically incest. Then comes a jumble of laws that pertain to almost every aspect of life, intended to make us a holy people. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle waiting to be put together.
Many commentators note the similarity in content between the commandments in Kedoshim and the Ten Commandments, from believing in one God and not making idols to keeping the Shabbat to honoring (and fearing) our parents. But more imaginative commentaries make remarkable connections between what may be seen as mundane, even obvious commandments and daily acts to be avoided.
Let’s take a familiar one: “Do not put a stumbling block before a blind person.” Obvious. Rashi hits a resonant chord when he explains it to mean, among other things, not to give a person advice that will benefit YOU rather than him. He brings an example from the midrash: don’t tell a person to sell his field and buy a donkey if your real desire is to buy his field. Sounds familiar.
But CHAZAL went even further. Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler cites the Talmudic source which says not to offer wine to a Nazirite (who is forbidden wine). That’s like offering a drink to a recovering alcoholic or luscious chocolate to a person desperately trying to lose weight. Tempting people with what will definitely bring their downfall.
Pressing a person’s buttons like this is something children do. They tease. They identify and play on others’ weak points. In many ways, the parsha is saying, grow up, treat others fairly. Respect their limitations and foibles. Don’t take advantage of others, economically, socially or morally. And above all, remember that all the commandments, between man and man, and between man and God, are equally important.
That’s all well and good, and of course obvious. But there’s a prerequisite for all of these banal motivational refrigerator-magnet sayings. It appears at the end of today’s first parsha.
Because our second parsha, Kedoshim – which means “holy people” – comes on the heels of the chapter about illicit relations, Rashi notes that being holy means avoiding illicit sexual relations.
But Rabbi David Ehrenkrantz notes that other commentators are more inclusive. Thus for the Ramban (Nachmanides), holiness is the antithesis of vulgarity. In his view, dignity and a balanced lifestyle are synonymous with holiness.
How do we attain this holiness? Through self-restraint, tempering our passions and controlling our desire for excess. Eat a kosher steak if you will, but not seven of them in one sitting.
The road to attaining this ideal begins at home with proper relations that form the bedrock for the “holiness” that is laid out in great detail in our parsha (which in essence is being fair and just to one and all). Part of this is based on our awareness of an overarching morality.
Holiness entails our being obligated to this morality. Today most of us do not envision God looking over our shoulder. Instead we call it our conscience telling us if what we are doing is right or wrong.
But in most cases a conscience doesn’t just appear. It is the result of the system of values our parents help to instill. Most of us remember our parents telling us to “be good” in one way or another. This is where the two parshot come together. Adhering to the laws pertaining to the home should help us to build a better value system for our later dealings with the world.
When I prepare bar mitzvah kids I ask them why they think the mezuzah is on the doorpost. Many of them say it’s to protect the home. It’s perceived as a charm, a talisman, a hamsa that keeps out the evil eye.
Bu not only kids think so. When things go bad many of us check that our mezuzot are kosher. Some brilliant rabbis have even attributed accidents involving the loss of children’s lives to mezuzot that weren’t kosher.
But I propose another possibility. Like the tsitsit, the mezuzah is meant: l’ma’an tiz’kru, so that you shall remember. Remember what? The mitzvoth that are supposed to be observed in the home: respect for parents, and between parents and children, consideration for the dozens of other commandments we have at home. If we remember them, and adhere to them, we protect our homes by strengthening family ties and imparting values that hopefully will help to make the children better adults. (We know it doesn’t always work!)
This is a very simplistic approach, and it also dims the magical aura surrounding the mezuzah. But it reflects more than a grain of truth.
We have just concluded a week marked by two days of potential stock-taking. Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, brought up memories of soldiers who died for the country, and stories of unbelievable altruistic heroism.
Then came Independence Day with reminders of the great hopes and values on which our country was founded. Some of the speeches were very moving but in some cases they evoked cognitive dissonance, as news flashes intruded and contradicted what was being said.
We wanted – we want – to be holy, a light unto the nations. In some ways we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. In others not so much.
The blueprint for success is in today’s parshot, if we take the time to read and internalize the messages. It’s not too late, especially since the most of the world seems to be even worse than we are.
How’s that for a new definition of holy: Not as bad as the others. It’s a beginning!