Parashat Acharei-Mot 5776

Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi, 29 April 2016


Holiness
 
This week’s Sidra is not one we often read. It is usually part of a double Sidra with Kedoshim, Leviticus 19, which most liberal congregations prefer to read because of the ethical principles – care for the poor and the needy, justice and respect for one another – that it teaches. Acharei Mot is more challenging. It relates Aaron’s duties after the death of his sons Nadav and Avihu, the ritual of the scape-goat and the list of forbidden sexual relations, including, most famously – or infamously, the prohibition ‘You shall not lie with a male in the way you lie with a woman’ (Lev. 18:22), which has formed the basis for opposition to homosexuality in both Judaism and Christianity. There is much in this Sidra that we might wish to challenge but we can also learn from it in unexpected ways, for it teaches us about how our ancestors thought about life.
 
The juxtaposition of the two sidrot, Acharei-Mot Kedoshim. has often given me pause for thought. One means ‘After the death of…’ and the other means ‘holy’. So we have, in effect, ‘after death – be holy.’ In Leviticus, it reflects events after the death of Aaron’s sons. Aaron must return to his priestly duties, and the people must be commanded to be holy. The word ‘holy’ is repeated several times at the beginning of Acharei Mot. Aaron is only allowed to enter the ‘holy place’ at certain times and he must put on holy garments.
 
The theme of holiness runs deep through the book of Leviticus, not just in the Sidra Kedoshim. It also runs deep in Jewish life. After death, we say the ‘Kaddish’, a prayer meaning ‘holy’ and which affirms God’s holiness. We bring God into our lives, praising God’s name. It is a seeming paradox which has often been commented on. Death is the time when we are perhaps most likely to question God. We feel bereft and life feels bleak. God’s goodness and blessing feel absent from our life, especially if our loved one has suffered. It is then, at this most difficult of moments, that we are required to praise God and give thanks.
 
In Orthodox practice, a minyan is required to say Kaddish. We don’t keep to this practice in Liberal Synagogues. We feel that whoever comes to say Kaddish should be able to do so, no matter how few are present. But we can learn from the idea of a minyan. When ten people come together to pray, they can bring a sense of holiness which is not always possible with just one or two (although there is also something special in a small gathering.) As Israel Mattuck wrote: ‘… some will pray together who cannot pray alone, as many will sing in chorus who would not sing solos.’ (Siddur Lev Chadash p. 16).
 
Together, we may be able to affirm God’s holiness when we cannot do so alone. And it is in affirming God’s holiness, that we bring God into our lives. This is what it means to be holy. To be holy is to bring God’s presence into our lives. We do this by our prayer, and even more by our deeds.
I was recently talking to someone about joining the Synagogue. She had lost a loved one and told me that she had no faith in God, and only thought of joining because of the community. But that is the point. At times of loss, the community should be there. Each member of the community is doing the work of God when they support and sustain someone at their time of need. It is through the community that one can feel God’s presence. Even when one is questioning God’s justice, one can start to feel that God is there in the support that a community gives. This is what it means for a community to be holy. At the heart of the Sidra Kedoshim, which is said to be in the very centre of the Torah, is the command to love our companions as we love ourselves. That is what is demanded of us if we are to be a Kehilah Kedoshah, a holy community. That is how we bring God into our community and our lives, and that is how we can help those who feel bereft of God’s presence to start to feel that God is with them again.
 
After a death, the journey is never easy, and this is especially so after the loss of a child. It is hard to imagine the pain Aaron must have felt after losing two of his sons. Yet we hear little of his grief. In his privileged position, he was not even permitted the formal rites of mourning. But a whole Sidra is called ‘After the death’. It seems a recognition of how momentous the death of the sons was. We can learn from it about the return to life, to ritual and to community. May we learn to support and sustain all who mourn, and so be a holy community. So may we bring God’s presence into our communities and our lives, so that the blessing of our Torah may be fulfilled: ‘In ever place where I cause my name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.’ As we recall God’s name, and sanctify it by saying the Kaddish, may we be blessed by God’s presence.

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