Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)
The title of this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot – Kedoshim (“after the death” and “martyrs”, respectively) – combined with the recent memories of Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron in mind – beckon us to contemplate the meaning of our lives.
As we review these portions, we notice that the text abruptly shifts between different subjects, which seem unrelated. Parshat Acharei Mot dedicates an entire chapter to the High Priest’s special Yom Kippur service. When he entered the most sacred spot in the Temple – the Holy of Holies – he would offer incense and offer a special prayer for the entire nation of Israel. This was a formative event occurring on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
The second part of the Parasha is dedicated to the other component part of any society. It contains an extensive list of prohibited sexual relationships and a severe warning imploring us to avoid emulating Canaanite and Egyptian cultures, which had allowed, and even encouraged, a range of incestuous relationships. Why did the Torah find it fitting to juxtapose the events of Yom Kippur and the High Priest with incestuous relationships?
Not coincidentally, Jewish tradition holds that the verses on the prohibition of incestuous relationships should be read in the synagogue during Minhah of Yom Kippur. Immediately thereafter, the Torah proceeds with the challenge of holiness: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy” [Lev. 19:2].
Commentators are at odds about how this verse should be interpreted. Should it be considered the conclusion of the previous portion, which discusses the prohibition of incestuous relationships, or should it be seen as an introduction to a new subject?
Proceeding to the verses following this dramatic announcement on the need to be holy, we discover that they are about well-known mitzvot. This aura of holiness seems far removed. The Torah commands us: “Every man shall fear his mother and his father, and you shall observe My Sabbaths. I am the Lord, your God. You shall not turn to the worthless idols, nor shall you make molten deities for yourselves” [ibid. v. 3-4]
Here, commandments concerning the relationship between God and human beings, such as keeping Shabbat and not worshipping idols, are juxtaposed with the commandment to honor our parents.
Later in the portion, obligations that the Torah considers religious injunctions become even more interspersed with social obligations. Commandments performed by individuals are mixed with those performed by the nation as a whole, and all of these are listed together, as if they were peas in a pod.
Perhaps our top-down approach to understanding these portions reveal one of the underlying principles of the Torah. Who is a “holy man”? The picture that generally comes to mind today is that of an angel with a long white beard wearing special robes and looking quite regal. But that’s not necessarily the case. Or rather, this image might truly be one of a holy man, but it is not the only one.
According to all opinions, the High Priest, who was supposed to enter the Holy of Holies, was supposed to be a special, holy person. However, he was not the only one tasked with striving for holiness.
Any Jew who loves one’s spouse and family belongs to the realm of holiness as well. Incidentally, a High Priest may not be single or widowed. He must be married. Our Torah teaches us that one need not become a hermit to attain holiness. A priest must be married. Otherwise, he wouldn’t understand the world, and wouldn’t be a part of it. It is because the High Priest is married that he can be required to understand the meaning of love, and accordingly, the severity of the prohibition of incestuous relationships and initiating inappropriate bodily contact.
Yet the challenge of achieving holiness doesn’t end here. It expands to include relationships between parents and children, as well. Every household is a miniature temple, maintained by the children in the family. The home is where they develop the right attitude toward parental authority and intergenerational ties. It is also where every person learns how to create “footholds of holiness” within the family. These include times when a family convenes and communicates, when they enjoy themselves together, and more.
The saying “each person shall fear his mother and his father” belongs to the realm of holiness, just as Shabbat creates a realm of holiness within the domain of time. This is how the Torah reveals how the holiest man, in the holiest place, on the holiest day, can shed his holiness and extend it to the domains of our lives.
Now is the time, as the nation of Israel reconnects with the horifying realities of the Holocaust and the heart wrenching losses commemorated on Yom Hazikaron that we can understand and internalize the fact that ultimately, the things we truly appreciate most are family, the stuff of holiness.
When we attempt to contemplate the lives of those we hold dearest, and try to pass on vestiges of their legacy to future generations, we remember the special things they had done – the things that gave them sanctity and value, which we wish to eternalize.