Parashat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5777

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 5 May 2017

In a world that discomfits and disturbs on too many levels, the need to hold on to a belief in something that has integrity, that is just, seeks parity in all aspects of life, is vital. In this week’s parashiyot – a double sedra that takes us to the heart of the Torah in the Book of Leviticus – we are compelled to ask ourselves, how can the texts of the Holiness Code help to nurture our spiritual journeys? How can we become more aware of things that are beyond this world or deep within us, the rare moments of apprehension, uplift, awe, reverence and mystery; and what can they teach us about how we should be in the world? How should we conduct ourselves? What is the compass that guides us towards pathways of goodness, truth, compassion and justice?

K’doshim tiheyu ki kadosh ani Adonai – ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal One your God, am holy (19:2). What do we mean by the word kadosh (holy)? This word was no mystery to the authors of the Hebrew Bible, because it is used in one form or another 566 times: from the conclusion of the creation story in Genesis when God blesses the seventh day and makes it holy, to the sanctification of the people standing at Mount Sinai ready to receive the Torah; from the consecration of the Tabernacle in the wilderness where the priests – holy themselves – ministered in the service of God, to the festivals of God, set apart as days of holiness and special observance; from holy places – Moses standing by the burning bush and instructed to remove his shoes because the ground on which he is standing is holy, to garments of holiness, worn by the priests. In the Torah, the firstborn of all Israel are declared holy, consecrated to God, and even a house can be holy, so too a field and the vessels used in the Sanctuary. The land is holy and the city of holiness is Jerusalem, the place where Solomon built God’s holy habitation, the Temple. In fact, it appears that anything can be holy – anything can be dedicated, set aside or consecrated to God.

In later rabbinic and liturgical literature, that root kadosh is used to designate the sanctification of a day of holiness on Friday evening and on Shabbat morning – Kiddush. It is the name given to two people consecrating themselves in marriage to each other – Kiddushin, and the name of the prayer to be recited by mourners at a funeral or shivaKaddish. It refers to a whole section of our daily liturgy – the KedushahKadosh, kadosh, kadosh – ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Eternal One, God of the hosts of heaven!’

So what is it that makes something holy? If the priests’ garments can be holy, are the clothes we wear ‘holy’ in some way? If the interior of our Sanctuaries carry the attribute of holiness, what about our own homes, our kitchens, or the places where we eat or sleep? In the first place, we might say that it is anything that aspires to be like God – ‘You shall be holy, for I the Eternal One your God am holy’. ‘I am the Eternal One, your God; therefore sanctify yourselves, and be holy, for I am holy’ (Leviticus 11:44). Rudolf Otto, whose significant study of holiness in The Idea of the Holy was published in 1958, defines holiness as something that is truly ‘mysterious… beyond our apprehension and comprehension…something that is ‘wholly other’ (p. 28).

And that captures something of the primary meaning of the Hebrew word kadosh – to be ‘set apart’ and totally other. So, when our parasha says: ‘You shall be holy for I the Eternal One your God am holy,’ what it means is that we should, as it were, set ourselves apart, just as God is set apart and totally other. As our prayer book says, when ‘we speak of holy times and places, set apart for the worship of God; of holy languages and books, in which God speaks to us, or we speak to or about God’ – this is holiness. It is an attribute of the divine and like the radiance of light, it can touch us, our longings and aspirations for goodness can be reflected by it. Wherever we stand, in whatever place – whether it is together with our communities in worship, or at home, at whatever time, if we long to be like God, to live a life governed by goodness, truth, compassion and justice – we have the capacity to be holy. Conversely, as the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine writes – when we express hatred, sternness and irritability, forgetting God, we extinguish the light of holiness (quoted in Siddur Lev Chadash, page 259).

If this verse sounds somewhat abstract, we should remind ourselves that the command to be holy does not stand alone. It stands in the context of the laws that follow, including, Lo ta’ashok et re-acha, v’lo tigzol; lo talin pe’ulat sachir it’cha ad-boker – ‘You shall not oppress – (the word ashak – can mean also ‘to extort’ or ‘defraud’) your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a labourer shall not remain with you until morning’ (vs. 13). Each section of the laws in this parashah and in others, end with the words Ani Adonai – ‘I am the Eternal One’, reminding us again of God’s attribute of holiness. So when we are guilty of oppression or extortion, when we hold on to the labourer’s wages until morning, depriving him or her of the means to buy a meal for their family, we diminish our vision of a fair world, in which all are regarded as equal. Holiness is no less about the mystical, prayer and contemplation, than about this world and our conduct in it.

When a steel company on the Isle of Sheppey went into administration and made 350 workers redundant just before Christmas one year, they were told that would not receive payment for their last month’s work until the end of January. Having spent their earnings on food and presents, they did not have enough money for food or heat for their homes during the coldest months of the year. This is one significant example of how we transgress the law that tells us not to ‘oppress’ or ‘defraud’, not to keep the wages of employees overnight, or for one week, or one month and why an acquaintance of mine felt impelled to set up a food bank that is still in existence for these workers and their families.

Kedoshim provides us with the words, the laws to close the polarisation between rich and poor; it warns us to have regard for the most vulnerable and needy in our society, to awaken compassion, to act not simply from philanthropic motivation, but from justice, from a sense of what is right. Laws and values are useless unless they are embodied in our own actions – protesting against divestment in people rather than investment. Turning indifference into a well-spring of compassion, justice, action – because that is what these laws are about – must be our labour, our lifelong enterprise as Jews and as individuals who aspire to live faithfully in the light of holiness.

We become holy when we dedicate ourselves to engaging in this endeavour. As Arthur Green has written more succinctly: ‘God’s holiness may indeed be a mystery beyond us, but we realize it in this world by simple and concrete acts of holy living’ (These Are the Words: A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life, p. 130)

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