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Achrei Mot-Kedoshim 5783              April 29, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

The Torah is quite clear. God commands Moses to tell the entire Israelite camp, “You shall be holy because I, The Lord your God, am holy.” As usual, when the Torah gives us a clear statement, it is anything but clear. For centuries, rabbis and sages have tried to understand what it means to be holy, and can we be holy like God?

This week’s double portion makes up the core of what biblical scholars call, the Holiness Code. Achray Mot deals with the ritual of Yom Kippur, when the Mishkan/Temple would have an annual cleansing of Tumah, the ritual impurity that arises every time a Jew sins. It not only affects the sinner but a trace of it accumulates in the Temple. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, that growing stash of Tumah must be removed. The High Priest cannot go into the Holy of Holies unless there is no Tumah in the Temple. To accomplish this, two goats are selected. One becomes a sacrifice, an offering from the people to say “I’m sorry” to God. The High Priest places his hands on the other goat, placing all the sins of the people in this one animal and then he sends it out into the wilderness where it will die. Not only does this ritual cleanse the Temple of the Tumah /of sin, but it cleanses the entire people of Israel as well. We all get a chance to start over.

Rabbi Arthur Green, from Boston, writes: “Y-H-W-H warns Aaron against the dangers of coming too close to Y-H-W-H! God is well aware of how dangerous it can be for a person to come too close. This is parallel to the warning given to the people to stay back at Mount Sinai, lest “Y-H-W-H break out among them,” tellingly spoken in the third person. … The God of revelation, who seeks to be present and dwell in Israel’s midst, is also aware of how dangerous that presence can be. (God) too has learned from the deaths of Aaron’s sons.

Why should the desired intimacy turn fatal? The … inner rage and fury within Y-H-W-H that sometimes overflow beyond control. We know that wild fury is found within nature – in tsunamis, earthquakes, and diseases. But why should human closeness awaken it? … All this comes to a head on Yom Kippur. We enter deep into our inner Mishkan in order to do the work of purification. To accomplish that, we need to come very close to the Great Fire – as close as we can. Hopefully, we come forth from that place as did the kohen in emerging from the Holy of Holies, with a shining face. “The whole house of Israel has been forgiven!”– and we go on to live another year.”

This need to be close to God is turned on its head in the Haftarah we read today. The Prophet Amos has God rebuking the People of Israel telling them that they are no better than Ethiopians and Philistines, who also were brought out of another country, just like Israel had been brought out of Egypt.

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein of Jerusalem notes that Amos tells a different story about the relationship between God and human beings. He writes: Amos, among the earliest of the classical prophets, stands fast in firmly expressing the message of religious accountability. He reminds those around him that they should not take Jewish distinctiveness as a sign of a preferred status which will buy them a respite from responsibility for their actions. He warns them that God views them no differently from distant nations and no differently from their intimate adversaries:
 
“To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians” – declares the Lord. “True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” (Verse 7).
The Israelites, too, must reckon with the results of their
behavior.

This is the crux of the issue. We are commanded to be holy like God but not too holy or too close to God because that could be dangerous, it could be deadly. We need to think of ourselves as special to God but not special in the sense of privilege but in the realm of responsibility. God has given the Jewish People special responsibilities to the world and if we are not doing our job, then God will call us into account.

It is like some kind of a “Goldilocks” problem. One side is too hot, one side is too cold, and we have to find the special place where the level of holiness is “just right.” The Torah does not tell us how we are supposed to find that sweet spot in the middle. All we know is that either extreme will bring us to the brink of disaster.

But Rabbi Green doesn’t get involved in this dilemma. He has a different question to ask. He asks what we Rabbis call, “the question behind the question.” Rabbi Green wants to know more about the God who is commanding us. He writes, “We have to turn the question back toward ourselves and ask why we depict Y-H-W-H in that way. We understand that the same wondrous and mysterious power that gave us life will also swallow us up someday. That is the nature of the human condition. But we want to approach it closely to know its secret, which is also the secret of who we are. “Know from where you came and where you are going” – and thus what you are supposed to do between those two. But we are also afraid of it. We do not want yet to be swallowed up, but to live.”

We need to know who we are, and to discover that we need to know more about the holiness of God. We understand that we need to be careful and deliberate. This is not a place where we can get careless because slipping can be deadly. Why do we consider a God that is both good and dangerous? Because that is the nature of what life is all about. We know that death can come at any moment. We know that no matter how careful we are, death will come eventually. To live a good life, we need to consider what we need to do to find the good in life, the kind, the compassionate, the wisdom, and the wonder that is life. We need to find the part of our DNA that brings us together. War, bigotry, contempt, hatred is what drives us apart. Human beings are social animals, we want to be able to live together. “Morality,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “means changing our point of reference from “me” to “we.”

No two human beings are alike. Built into our genetics is a sense of moral fairness. The CEO of the Enterprise Institute, Arthur C. Brooks writes in his book, “Love your Enemies,” “We are all genetically programmed to believe in the moral values of fairness, but there are two different expressions of that shared moral value. The first expression can be called redistributive fairness which holds that it is fair to redistribute rewards proportional to our needs… The second expression is called meritocratic fairness which holds that fairness means always matching reward to merit.” Mr. Brooks then adds, “You may be genetically predisposed to a conservative, five channel moral foundation, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a conservative if your intellect tells you otherwise. Think deeply. Listen to the other side. Reflect on what others are saying, then ask yourself not just how you feel, but what you think is right. We’re not slaves. We’re not shackled to a pipe in the basement of our own built-in genetic morality. In the book, “The Birth of a Mind” the eminent brain scientist Gary Marcus writes, “Built-in does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience” When it comes to our moral outlook, Marcus says, “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises.”

The spark of God may be inside us, but we are given life, we are given experience to revise basic information that we use to know what is right and wrong, what is good or bad, or what is kind or what is evil. We don’t look outside ourselves to find the holy in life; we begin by examining our own souls, and looking into our own hearts to discover the foundation of the holiness that we seek. Only then do we turn to what is outside ourselves. We grow up, we mature, we use our experience to discover how we can change “me” to “we.” Only with experience can we build on our foundation, the kind of lives we wish to live. We build our own unique way of bringing good into the world and we build a unique way to help overcome evil.

We may differ in our approach to life, but we all work with the same parameters. We have only a limited number of days to work on living a life of holiness. Yom Kippur may give us a start on turning our lives around, but this work must happen every day. Some say that Yom Kippur gives us a taste of death, a day without food or drink, so we can understand how precious and limited our days may be.

We will have bad days. There will be days when evil will break through. It may be some natural disaster or some terrible mistake that we make. But there is always forgiveness, there is always fairness, there is always kindness, and there is always a chance to start over and get things right. We are not any better or worse than anyone else, but we have the responsibility to do our part to make life better for everyone. When we help others, we discover our true self. This is how we draw closer to God; this is how we bring God’s holiness into the world.

Where can we start to bring this holiness into the world? The Torah tells us in our parsha: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If we can love our neighbor, then we are well on our way.

May we experience the holiness we seek, and may we share it with all who we meet as we say

… Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784