Dvar Torah – Parshiot Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 2020
A crazy thing happened recently when I went down to the basement to bring up the boxes of my Passover dishes. One of the boxes was falling apart and needed to be replaced. What did this box say on it? Corona! Perhaps a coincidence but sadly, one that is very interesting at this time when we are dealing with social distancing and the Corona COVID19 deadly virus. On Passover, when we refrain from Chometz, we are eating on a holier level and clearly this box no longer was appropriate for this special holiday.
Just what does it mean to be holy? This is addressed in detail in Parshat Kedoshim, which immediately follows Parshat Acharei Mot. In Parshat Acharei Mot, we learn about forbidden sexual relationships. Rashi notes that being holy means refraining from these forbidden acts. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains that a person who is holy is one who can control sexual temptations and prevent the destruction of one’s family life. Ramban, however, notes Rabbi Riskin, goes further than this and comments that holiness applies to more than sexual behavior. Holiness applies to all elements of human nature. The commandment to be holy is relevant to every part of daily life. Loving your neighbor as yourself and not placing a stumbling block before the blind are commandments in this parsha that refer to being holy. Both approaches are similar, though, notes Rabbi Riskin, because both “understand that the religious key to human conduct requires love and limits, the ability to love others and the self-control to set limits on one’s desires.
Being holy is not just for the Kohanim, not just for the Levites, and not just for any one group of people. G-d asks Moshe to speak to the entire congregation, notes Rabbi Rachel Esserman. It is written “Kol Adat Bnei Yisrael” – all the congregation. Everyone is considered holy. Each person should determine whether any business decisions they make bring holiness into the world. While most people don’t have fields where they can leave food in the corners as we are commanded in the parsha, we can give Tzedakah and volunteer our time. Anything we can do to make a difference for those who are needy is an example of being holy.
Mrs. Michal Horowitz notes that in this parsha we see an emphasis on avoiding “rechilut” being a tale bearer and speaking “lashon hora” evil words about others. The text reads “Lo telech rachil biamecha” – “You shall not be a gossipmonger amongst your people…I am Hashem.” The Baal HaTurim teaches that the word “Rechiel” (gossiper) is spelled with an extra yud to teach that if one gossips and speaks slanderously about someone else it’s as if they transgressed the entire Aseret Hadibrot – Ten Commandments. The letter yud has the numeric value of ten. In Mishlei (Proverbs) 18:21, adds Mrs. Horowitz, it is written “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” This also extends to what we post online, in an email, a text, on what’s app or social media.
Holiness can sometimes involve an extra challenge and the ability to rise above it. Rabbi Norman Lamm explains that it is easier for a wealthy person to keep the Sabbath. For someone who is poor, however, it is more of a challenge to keep this Mitzvah. This reminds me of my late husband, who became an observant Jew in his 20s. Decades later, he still felt challenged when he would pass an eating establishment that was not kosher. Non-Kosher food that I had never tasted didn’t faze me as I grew up keeping Kosher. For someone who came into it later in life, it is far more difficult to maintain these rules. Rabbi Lamm further explains that the way to become holy is to practice the many commandments described in this parsha – examples are avoiding idol worship, being charitable, not stealing, paying laborers on time, not exploiting the less fortunate, not slandering others, and not putting a stumbling block before the blind.
Rabbi Berel Wein adds that being holy is a much greater challenge and a much greater Mitzvah for one who is out in the workplace or the marketplace. Someone who is in an occupation surrounded by Torah can easily be holy. It is when one has to face the rest of the world and when they have both the opportunity and the challenge of being holy. He comments that “Holiness is viewed as not being an exalted state of being out of the reach of the average Jew but rather as a natural and necessary by-product of living a life of Torah observance.”
“Being holy is not defined by synagogue attendance or outward signs of piety,” comments Stuart Binder. We find holiness in our relationships with others. When we are compassionate, respectful of others and ethical in our behavior holiness is evident. We are not holy just because G-d gave us the Mitzvot, adds Rabbi Andy Shapiro Katz. We are holy when we do the Mitzvot and act towards others as we are commanded.
Every one of us can be holy in our own way. While I had to replace a broken cardboard box that happened to have the word “Corona” written on it, I think about the way we are being holy in this time of corona virus. We are using “boxes” on our computers, with Zoom gatherings in shuls and community organizations. We share words of Torah, and of holiness and emotional support for one another. When we help to feed the poor, to donate supplies and to see what the needs of others are at this challenging time, we are being holy and following the commandments G-d gave us in Parshat Kedoshim.
Wishing everyone a safe weekend and a speedy end to social distancing so that we can eventually further our Mitzvot of being holy in person.