Yom Rivii, 22 Heshvan 5780
Wednesday, 20 November 2019
Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 2013

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
Rabbi Richard Jacobi

19 April 2013

(Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30, 19:1 - 20:27)

How much is the individual responsible to and for the community within which s/he lives? And, in reverse, how much is the community, some might say society, responsible for individuals within it? This is one of the critical areas of concern in our country at present, as taxation and benefit changes take effect, as some of our poorest people rely on the increasing number of food banks appearing in different boroughs and districts around the nation.

The Book of Leviticus is generally concerned with ritual specifics, with the requirements for purity and separation of the religious cult. It has many details that relate to the tent of meeting / Temple, and others, such as last week’s combination of Tazria and Metzora that dealt with skin afflictions and house infestations. In the ancient period, priests would be called in, just like ghostbusters, to deal with such matters.

The first half of this week’s double bill continues in this vein, with laws for the ritual of Azazel on Yom Kippur, sacrifices and slaughtering of animals for food. These, of course, still guide the relevant practices of kashrut. Lastly, we have a chapter that spells out a variety of prohibited sexual relations. These regulations also fill the second chapter of Kedoshim, which sets out the punishments for sexual offences.

Sandwiched between these two chapters is a mixed bag of ethical and ritual laws that comprise Leviticus 19. It’s a well-known passage that we Liberal Jews read selected parts of on Yom Kippur afternoon. It’s well-known because of the richness of the text, which includes all ten commandments, in a different order, and varied other sound ethical precepts. All these could occupy us for many pages and hours!

However, it is upon the transitional verse that introduces this chapter that I wish to focus. Moses is told to, according to the usual translation, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal One, your God, am holy.” The key phrase used is k’doshim tih’yu. Now grammarians will know that this is phrased in the imperfect tense, often taken to be the future, but actually meaning only an action that is yet to be completed. So, an equally legitimate translation of this phrase would be “You are, and continue to be, holy, for I, the Eternal One...”

You might now ask what difference this makes, and I think the answer is that it makes a significant difference. The first option suggests that we, as human beings, start from a point where we are unholy. It is through our words and our deeds, and by following the array of rules in the rest of chapter 19 and elsewhere, that we might attain holiness. Further, we can at any point lose the status of holiness, by committing any offence against the rules.

On the other hand, if we are born and continue to be holy, whatever we do or say, then we all have an intrinsic worth, a residual value as a human being that can never be denied us. I prefer this reading of the text, and see it is consistent with the expression, in Genesis 1, that human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. No human being is born into a state of sin or wrongness, each and every person is deserving of respect.

This has implications for the way we each ought to speak and act. Casually belittling people by using general pejorative terms - “benefit cheats”, “lazy scroungers”, or, at the other end of the spectrum “crooked bankers” - does little except make us feel temporarily

‘holier than thou’. This week, those who chose to call the late Baroness Thatcher a ‘witch’ and to disrespect the funeral service - and I disagreed with the decision to give her a ceremonial funeral - have spread a little more dissension into our society. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

The enduring effect of all these nasty words and deeds is to create a divided, selfish, and nasty society in which most of us feel got at, undermined, anything but holy and special. That is the reason why the statement k’doshim tih’yu is in the plural, not the singular. No individual can sustain holiness on their own, only a community, a society, can build and sustain something special, something we might call ‘holy’.

If this feels like I am arguing against myself, then let me make clear the reality of human life, spelled out in Genesis 2 - “it is not good for a human to be alone”. If you want to be wholly or holy miserable, then isolation is a step towards that goal. If you want the possibility of enduring holiness, then you, as an individual, have to accept responsibility for the community in which you live, you have to give into the social ‘pot’. Do this, and you will reap a rich harvest, probably in ways you never expected. Then, as Leviticus 19:9 - 10 reminds us, share some of your harvest with the poor and the stranger!

You, as an individual, are holy and special. Now, live up to that special status.