Parashat Kedoshim: Holiness and martyrdom

Yosef had given up this world to secure a better future world for Jews, a world of love and peace.

soldiers kotel 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
soldiers kotel 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With Pessah still seared into our souls, we become thrust into Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is quickly followed by Remembrance Day (Yom Hazikaron) leading into Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzmaut). This year, this roller-coaster of emotions arrives after the nebulous commandment opening our biblical portion, "You shall be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:1, 2). Moreover, next week's reading, Emor, contains a similar command, "I shall be made holy in the midst of the children of Israel" (Lev. 22:32), which our Sages interpret to mean the necessity of martyrdom. What does it mean to be holy, what is the Jewish force behind martyrdom, and what, if anything, is the connection between these two commands, and the dizzying and dazzling experiences of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut? Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy, identifies holiness with transcendence, with the "numinous," with that aspect of the divine which is beyond this material world. From this comes the mystical notion of spirituality as an ability to escape the physical world and transport oneself in the higher realms of supernal ethereality. But Judaism has always preferred that we attempt to experience holiness even while we remain rooted in this world. Hence, for us the holy individual is one who remains impervious to the blandishments of bribery, to the seductions of sexually immoral acts; he, like God, is both immanent and transcendent at the very same time. And while he/she is a child of a certain generation within which he/she operates and with which he/she identifies, he/she lives on behalf of eternal values and ideals which belong to all the generations, indeed which hold the keys to a more perfected and redeemed society. This is the message which the creator gives to Moses, when the prophet asks the question of all questions: "Show me Your glory, the aspect of Your divine being which may - and must - be expressed on earth" (Ex. 33:18, in accordance with Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed). The response of the inscrutable God is that He is a God of infinite, unconditional and undeserved love, of kindness and forgiveness, the God of all humanity, the God who wants everyone to be free and who will ultimately redeem the world; and God wants Israel to be His partners in bringing this vision to the world, in destroying evil and upholding good, in bringing about redemption (Ex. 34). And what makes us able to be His partners, to be both immanent and transcendent, to even leave this world if need be to help secure future redemption? The fact that we were created in His image, that we have within each of us a part of the divine, that we were each formed in His womb (Job, as cited by Maimonides, Laws of Slaves, 9,8). Let me tell you an Efrat story which expresses such an ability to live in both worlds at the same time, to express holiness and martyrdom. Mordecai and Anne Goodman have been the proprietors of Pizzeria Efrat almost since Efrat began. They came here via Lincoln Square Synagogue, although Anne grew up in Brooklyn and Mordecai in Houston, Texas. They were blessed with nine children, the second son of whom was named Yosef. I was privileged to have given Yosef his name at his circumcision, to have blessed him at his bar mitzva, to have observed his rambunctious but good-natured pranks which often got him into trouble, to have delighted in his success as an outstanding paratrooper and to have been warmed by his wide smile and strong embrace every time we met. One fateful day Yosef's parachute became intertwined with the parachute of his commanding officer; if he did nothing, chances were that both would be killed, but if he separated the parachutes, he would plunge to certain death while his CO would most probably live. In the split moment of decision, Yosef managed to disentangle the parachutes - and was given a hero's burial on Mount Herzl. The evening before the funeral, I spent many hours with the family. Mordecai hardly spoke, only adjuring me, as I left very late that night, "Rabbi, I don't want you to say at the eulogy that this is the price of aliya." I acceded to his request, but was perplexed as to its meaning. Was this not the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate price, of aliya? One year later, Mordecai and Anne came to my home with a question. Their third son, Yehuda, was about to enter the IDF, and wished to serve in Yosef's unit. They, as parents of a soldier who had lost his life, had to give their written permission. They didn't want to sign; what should they do? I hesitated, but stated, "I do not believe we as parents have the right to make moral decisions for our children, or even to deny them their moral decisions." "Then we must sign," Mordecai said, as he and Anne left my home. I ran after them. "I believe what I told you was right. Nevertheless, if it was my son, I don't know if I would have the courage to sign." The next night was our Yom Hazikaron ceremony in Efrat. Mordecai asked me to come back to his house afterward. I found a "party" in full swing, a house filled with people, films of Yosef, pizza and ice cream. It was the entire paratroop unit invited to welcome Yehuda into its midst. As I slowly and humbly walked home that evening, I finally think I understood Mordecai's request. Yosef's death was not the price of aliya; in a difficult but profound way, it was the privilege of aliya. Yosef had given up this world to secure a better future world for Jews, a world of love and peace, a world of redemption. Yosef died protecting his people, his land, his future. Yosef did not die as a victim, but as a victor - for the sake of Yom Ha'atzmaut. Yosef may have lost some of the temporal world but he gained eternity. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.