Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5778 (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

This Shabbat, we will read the Torah portions Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Though these two parashot ostensibly cover entirely different subjects, they share something profound in common, which is also tied to how they are structured.

The first part of Acharei Mot deals with the service the high priests perform in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur, while the second part warns us not to commit the sin of incest. We begin by reading about the character of a nearly perfect individual, a special person – a priest who is greater than all his brethren, and enters the Holy of Holies on the holiest day of the year to the Jewish people. Anyone else who enters this place must be put to death, and many priests who entered and were unworthy of this privilege never made it out alive.

The second part of the parsha tells us the laws applying to a man who has intercourse with his sister, daughter or mother. We find the extreme ends of humanity and spirituality at the beginning and end of the parsha, and they resurface in the next parsha, Kedoshim, whose very name sets us up for a challenge.

The Torah spells out our lofty goal at the very beginning of the parsha: “You shall be holy, for I, God, am holy.” The Jewish people are called upon to raise the flag of sanctity with pride, for an equally challenging reason, “for I, Hashem, your God, am holy…”. That is to say, you must do this because of the resemblance between the nation and God. At the conclusion of the parsha, we read of the laws of incest and the associated punishments once more.

Again, we exit the world of the sublime, and peer into the depths of human depravity and cultural bankruptcy. Are there no shades of grey? Can a person not aspire to holiness without hitting rock bottom? The Torah seems to be outlining two extreme models to redefine our conceptions, particularly the way we think about sanctity.

Obviously, there are intermediate stages between the virtuous and the villainous, but the real question is in which direction a person intends to set off. Is the goal to live a life infused with meaning and substance, or to continue faltering and falling? This is why the two extreme ends of the spectrum are presented.

Moreover, the Torah seems to be trying to shape the world of holiness in an unexpected way. If we were to show children, or perhaps even adults, ten pictures of different people and ask our subjects to indicate which of them are holy figures, it stands to reason that they would choose the characters who look like ascetics, people who have distanced themselves from worldly affairs.

Similarly, if we were to ask our subjects to draw a “holy man”, it would more than likely look like a monk cloistered off in a room full of books, or simply cut off from the rest of the world. How would they draw Avraham Avinu? He would probably be depicted as an old man, perhaps even slightly bent over. No one would depict him as a warrior venturing out to rescue his nephew from captivity, like a fighter in an elite military unit (which is what he was).

But this is precisely the point! The Torah is describing a world of holiness that is far removed from the idea of people secluding themselves from reality. To the contrary, this type of holiness is about conquering reality.

The high priest is required to be married, as emphasized in the verse: “and he atoned for himself and his household.” Since the high priest was part of a world full of love and family life, the Torah must stress that at the other end of the spectrum, people might deviate to the extent of committing incest with their family members.

In the second parsha as well, which contains the statement of “You shall be holy, for I, God, am holy”, the Torah sets the highest bar for us to achieve – to liken ourselves to God, the Ultimate Source of holiness.

However, soon afterwards, we read of the prohibition of gossiping, the obligation for us love each other, not to set obstacles in the path of the blind, and so on. Each of these precepts ends with the words, “I am God” – as if to say that this is how you are to imitate God.

This occurs not by secluding ourselves from society or being locked up in a room, but rather, by living life to the fullest, while remaining fully mindful that we want to live our lives to have meaning. This is true for how we live as individuals, and it is equally true for how we conduct ourselves as a nation.

For two millennia, our people remained in exile. Lacking sovereignty, our nation was not able to take part in activities meant to benefit the greater good. Our prophets considered this to be a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s Name. This was not related to how individual Jews behaved, Heaven forbid. There were certainly wonderful individual Jews who infused every moment of their lives with meaning. However, as a nation, we were disconnected from the course of world history, and in this sense, we committed an act of Chilul Hashem.

Today, we have rejoined the family of nations, and can now enjoy the opportunity of living once more as a sanctified nation. The existence of the State of Israel enables us to once again make decisions on a national scale that add an aura of holiness to our lives as a nation. This can be manifested in social, political, and economic issues. Just as in our Torah portions, by determining the right policies, we can climb to the very heights of the spiritual realm, or alternatively, slip into a spiritual void.

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