Parashat Aharei Mot Kedoshim: Holy life, holy death

What is the most fundamental path to holiness in daily living?

Remembrance Day siren standing 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Remembrance Day siren standing 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
We have just completed the cycle of three newly-marked Hebrew calendar days - days of emotions from the depths of despair to the heights of rapture - which to a great extent define the past 75 years of Jewish history: Yom Hazikaron Lashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day), and Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day). The leitmotif which informs these days of inter-related mourning and celebrations is Kiddush Hashem: the Jews who gave up their lives to sanctify God's name in the crematoria of destruction and on the battlefields of glory. Israel reborn answers the 2,000-year-old gentile question: "Where is their God now?" At the same time, however, the challenge remains to define the root word which may serve as the defining characteristic of our nation, the central commandment of our biblical portion this week, and the "definition" (as it were) of God Himself, kadosh, holy: "Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel [slated to be a 'holy' nation - goy kadosh] and say unto them: 'You shall be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy'" (Leviticus 19:2). Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy, sees God's holiness as expressing the "mystical numinous," a wholly otherness, an awesome uniqueness. Clearly, God is above and beyond the physical, totally free of the fetters and limitations of nature. From this perspective, a human being achieves holiness when he, too, is free of immoral sexual drives, of the greed for money and power, of the petty pride that drives fame, envy and jealousy. When a Jew sacrifices his or her mortal life for the eternal values of his faith, he indeed becomes a holy individual, having surrendered the whole of this physical world for an eternal connection to the divine. For Judaism, however, a greater holiness is achieved by living one's life in obedience to God's laws rather than by giving it up for the sake of those laws. The primary example of this truth is Isaac, who is referred to by the rabbis of the midrash as a "whole burnt offering" after God commanded Abraham not to sacrifice his son, but rather to dedicate him to God in life. What is the most fundamental path to holiness in daily living? Yes, by constantly fulfilling the divine commandments, but especially by loving our fellow human beings, thus obeying the commandment which Rabbi Akiva called "the greatest rule of the Torah," and which follows the charge to be holy: "You must love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:18, paralleling "You shall be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy," ibid. 19:2). Instinctively, every human being suffers from the "anthropocentric predicament" of seeing himself as the center of the universe. A newborn baby is totally self-absorbed, seeing the entire world as extensions of him/herself. To love another means to leave room for another, to give of oneself to another, to share one's material possessions in order to make certain the other has as well. Indeed, the Hebrew word for love, ahava, comes from the root hav which means "give." When one makes the blessing of sanctification (kiddush from kadosh) over wine at the advent of every Sabbath and festival, one is supposed to take the goblet in the palm of one's hand, enclosing it with cupped fingers but with one's hand open to give. And so it is that all the assembled drink from that goblet; there can be no sanctification without giving and loving. The very commandment of kiddushin, sanctified engagement between a bride and groom, emanates from the charge to "love your neighbor as yourself," as cited by Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav (B.T. Kiddushin 41a), and as confirmed by one of the blessings under the nuptial canopy: "Rejoice, yes rejoice, beloved and loving neighbors [re'im ahuvim]..." A married couple is the most intense expression of loving one's neighbor as one loves oneself, since each spouse gives him/herself to the other on a daily basis, and the two actually become one in sexual union and produce a child who combines parts of each. And of course God, the source of sanctity, is the ultimate lover and giver. The Kabbala teaches that primordially, God constricted and constrained Himself (as it were) to leave room for the physical, finite other (tzimtzum); and He did this (as it were) because the God of consummate love (YHVH) must have people to love, explains Rav Haim Vital, and these people must have the power to choose even to defy His will in order to be truly other, to be His partners and not His pawns. It is His love for and belief in us which will eventually empower us to choose again in accordance with His will and partner with Him in perfecting the world in the kingship of the divine. To be like God and to walk in His ways means to love and to give to others just as He loves and gives to us. Take note of the following two talmudic passages which define God and sanctity in terms of His love and gifting to us: "Said R. Hama the son of R. Hanina: What is the meaning of the verse, 'Follow behind the Lord your God [Deut. 13:5]'? How is it possible if... the Divine Presence is a devouring fire? But just as He clothes the naked [Adam and Eve after they sinned], so must you clothe the naked; just as He visited the sick [Abraham, after his circumcision], so must you comfort the mourner; and just as He buried the dead [God buried Moses], so must you bury the dead" (B.T. Sota 14a). And in the context of the respect due to a president of the Sanhedrin, we are taught: "It happened when R. Eliezer, R. Joshua and R. Tzadok were feasting at the wedding of the son of Rabban Gamliel [president of the Sanhedrin] that Rabban Gamliel was standing and serving the wine. [R. Gamliel] served R. Eliezer a glass of wine, but he would not accept it from him; He served R. Joshua, and he accepted it. R. Eliezer chided R. Joshua, 'How can we remain seated and permit the great Rabban Gamliel to stand and serve us wine?' R. Joshua countered that Abraham our father was greater than R. Gamliel, and he stood and served three Arab wanderers [as the angels appeared to be], so why is it not fitting for the great Rabban Gamliel to serve us?" R. Tzadok had the last word: "...Does not the Holy One blessed be He cause the winds to blow, raise up the clouds, bring down the rain, cause the earth to sprout vegetation and set a table with food before every human being? Ought we not therefore permit Rabban Gamliel to stand and serve us as well?" (B.T. Kiddushin 32b). It should now be clear why every Sephardi prayer book opens with a prayer of Rav Haim Vital, preparing to obey the commandment to pray and get close to God on the basis of the verse "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." To be holy is to learn from God to love and serve your fellow human beings. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.