Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5783

26 April 2023 – 5 Iyyar 5783

By Rabbi Ariel J Friedlander, Or ‘Ammim Bologna


God spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy.”[1]

In the middle of the middle book of the Torah, one dedicated to the priests and their instruction, Moses is called to bring the entire community together, to receive this particular commandment. This implies that the mitzvah is something that all who listen may be able to achieve. The centrality of the law is made clear, yet the definition of what it means to be holy is not as explicit as we might wish.

How do we understand what it is to be holy? Since God is holy, it must be something positive, something special, something different. In these verses, the word that we translate as ‘holy’ is kedoshim. Traditionally it is understood as something or someone being set apart. The many mitzvot that follow delineate a variety of boundaries that, if we are able to maintain them, should bring us into a state of holiness. They set us apart as Israel, from other nations; they set apart what is legal and illegal, as well as permitted foods versus those forbidden.

This is where the difficulty begins. When Moses spoke God’s words, the Children of Israel were still forming their identity. The Temple had not yet been built, nor destroyed. The people were heading towards the Promised Land, not exile or galut. As we read the parasha this Shabbat, looking at the mitzvot from our perspective as Liberal Jews in the world today, how might the ancient teaching still bring us to holiness?

It is not part of our tradition to demand strict adherence to halacha per se, but we do not automatically dismiss it as irrelevant. Might we understand the laws concerning holiness as commanding us to focus on what we do, without being distracted? That is a way of separating ourselves from others. We can also see the commandments as describing ways to commit to the relationships we have with other people, while still holding fast to our identity. By telling us what to do to create a good life for ourselves, and how to build a just world, the mitzvot call us to step up. Each one of us must choose to take on that responsibility, however we may be able to.

There is another issue to consider:  in the same text that tells us to set ourselves apart, we are also commanded to reach out, to love our neighbours[2] and to love strangers[3]. How might it be possible to be separate, yet connected to the community?

Rabbi Stephen Geller teaches that, “On the one hand, true holiness is viewed as deriving from the vigilant maintenance of differences … But countering this narrowness is the focus in Leviticus 16[4] on atonement … i.e., the reconciliation of humanity with God. This represents a religious aspiration to join and cohere, not separate.”[5]

It is clear that what we do can create holiness, and the Jewish way is to begin with ourselves. We work on our characters, developing the discipline and stamina we need to concentrate on our daily lives. However, this is only the first part of the process. In order to emulate God, we need to reach out to the other in empathy. As Rabbi Geller concludes, only being separate creates isolation, and only being similar leads to a loss of identity and meaning. However, there can be a balance between an outward separation and an inner sympathy.

In the tempest and turmoil of the world today, may our entire community hear the words of the Torah portion, and each of us reach out to find our way to reconciliation. Thus, we may feel the joy of what it is to be kedoshim.

[1] Leviticus 19:  1-2
[2] Leviticus 19:18
[3] Leviticus 19:34
[4] i.e., the first half of this week’s double portion that is Acharei Mot.
[5] Separation and Union:  The Poles of Holiness, Rabbi Stephen A Geller, posted on JTS website 05.05.17.


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