Parshat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “Speak to the entire congregation of the People of Israel and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
What does it mean to be holy? In our generation, the emotionally-charged observance of Yom Hazikaron – when we honor the memories of those who have lost their lives defending the State of Israel – provide poignant answers to this ancient question.
I would like to offer some context for this matter by citing a teaching from Rabbi Yechezkel “Chatzkel” Abramsky, z”l, legendary sage and rabbinical judge of London and Jerusalem. He taught that three aspects of our ethnicity create Jewish identity: belonging to a special nation, a special religion, and a special holy community. These three elements are expressed in the Tahanun supplication that we recite after the daily Shemoneh Esrei prayer.
The first element is reflected in the words: “Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and do not destroy Israel, those who recite ‘Shema Yisrael’.” Fascinatingly, the prayer speaks of “Israel” and not of “Jews”, of our national heritage rather than of our religious faith. Israel is, after all, the name of our common patriarch, Yisrael; it is the special term for our national homeland – and a nation is a family writ large! Nations developed from families, and so we are the Children of Israel!
We begin this prayer by entreating the Almighty to preserve also those Jews who do not identify with a traditional code of conduct or a commitment to a particular faith or set of beliefs. It is enough that they are citizens of the State of Israel, or diaspora Jews who identify with the “Jewish family” in times of crisis. This is the covenant of Jewish peoplehood that God established with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.
The prayer continues: “Guardian of a unique people, guard the remnant of a unique people, and do not destroy a unique people, who declare Your Name one and unique, the Lord our God is one and unique.”
In this second stage of the prayer, we ask for the preservation also of those who see themselves as “Jews” in addition to being Israelis, those who live a unique traditional lifestyle of Sabbath, festivals and kashrut, and those who are committed to faith in one God. These Jews express the covenant at Sinai, the special religious beliefs and way of life that make Jews a singular and unique people.
The prayer concludes with the highest stage of love, “Guardian of a sacred people, guard the remnant of a sacred people, and do not destroy a sacred people, who triplicate with three sanctities before the Sacred One.” This is the final and highest aspect of our ethnicity: in addition to our being a nation and a religion – Jews and Israelis, bound up together with a family-nation-state and committed to a system of traditions and beliefs – we must also strive to be truly close to our loving God, to be holy and sacred, God-like in words and deeds, devoid of egocentricity even to the extent of martyrdom for the sake of God and Israel.
This is the very first commandment of this week’s Torah reading of Kedoshim: “you shall be holy.” What does this mean? Yosef Goodman, z”l, son of my beloved friends, Mordechai and Anne Goodman, demonstrated how to answer this question.
In early 2006, Yosef, a member of an elite IDF unit, was participating in an army training maneuver at the Nitzanim base near the city of Ashdod. While jumping out of an army plane, Yosef’s parachute became entangled with the parachute of his unit commander, a war hero who had saved many Jewish lives and who was central to our military victories.
If Yosef did nothing, chances were that they would both be killed as the plane crashed to the ground, but there also was a small possibility that they both would live. Yosef, however, – in a split second decision – opted to disentangle his parachute from that of his commanding officer, thereby saving the life of the commander, but cataputting him to certain death on the ground below. At the funeral on Har Herzl, the head of the entire unit praised Yosef, calling him a fearless soldier who showed everyone the meaning of selfless Zionism. Yosef, z”l, acted above and beyond what Jewish law expected of him, but he certainly was a holy Jew, close to God Himself.
Who is holy? Roi Klein, z”l, a young married father of two, who loved his nation, his land and his Torah with all his heart and soul. In the Second Lebanon War in the Summer of 2006 against Hizbullah, Roi found himself in the town of Bint Jbeil removing armaments with his army reserve unit. He was standing near the entrance to a building when a terrorist threw a grenade that landed near him. Klein yelled out to his men, “Klein is dead! Klein is dead!” and, while proclaiming “Shema Yisrael!”, jumped on the live grenade, muffling the explosion with his body and saving the lives of all of his fellow soldiers. Roi, z”l, too is a kadosh, a holy Jew.
Please, God, preserve all members of the Jewish nation: the Jews who have only the most basic of Jewish ethnic ties, those who also have deep Jewish religious ties, and especially those who have attained a degree of God-like holiness! Preserve all members of the Jewish nation, for each of us has the capacity to strive for holiness!