I had the honor of giving a d’var Torah, thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, for Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock today. The names of the portions for today are Acharei Mot — Kedoshim. After Death — Holiness. I added subheadings to my reflection to help the reading process. May we continue to sink into being and strive towards holiness.
It seems quite incredible that two extremely important and idea-filled portions are combined this year. This is the same conundrum Yeshayahu Liebowitz faced when writing his pithy commentary, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven. Indeed, there is no way to work through the breadth of the narrative, so let us dispense with that idea at the outset.
Instead, let’s nestle into the name of this double portion: After Death, Holiness.
After the death of Aaron’s two sons
The text is referring to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons. Which actually happened in chapter 10 and we are now in chapter 16. Previously, their actions were described. Nadab and Abihu approached HaShem in the Holy of Holies unsanctioned and perished.
The connection between these names and our lived experience feels very concrete for me. There has been so much death in the world. Yet, we have struggled to find our way to holiness. Whether in the Bronze Age or the postModern age, our access to holiness is not a given.
Making sense of death today
Sometimes, our political leaders have stumbled in trying to parse meaning from those deaths. Recently, Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked George Floyd for sacrificing his life for justice. Obviously, it would be far better if Mr. Floyd had lived through his encounter with the police, rather than being murdered. And he had no choice about being killed. This episode reminds me that no matter how advanced society becomes, we strive to make sense of death, to justify it and make it holy. Acknowledging the depth of tragedy in death can be hard. Protests against George Floyd’s death were an inflection point in the national conversation about policing and the conviction of his murderer furthered the walk towards justice. Just as Aaron’s sons did not have to do die to bring us towards holiness, George Floyd did not need to die to move us towards justice.
Similarly, it seems difficult to fully empathize with those mourning the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. So many people have died and so many people continue to die. Yet, what I see most often is anger about the changes made to communal life in order to protect public health. From the California gubernatorial recall to arguments about re-opening face-to-face learning to whether masks are necessary: our conversations are consumed by how this pandemic continues to affect the living. It seems impossible to truly hold space for the emptiness left by three million deaths worldwide, or the 570,000 deaths within the United States.
Moving towards holiness
So how, after all this death, do we dare assert space for holiness? I believe we need to take guidance from our Torah portions.
Here is my theory on the lesson of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons:
Attempting to connect with the Source of Life is truly potentially dangerous. I have known far too many people who were lured by the false sense of clarity gained from drugs, who chase a mystical high over the cliff with catastrophic consequences. We must allow ourselves to be guided on our search for holiness, so that we don’t lose ourselves to the pursuit. This is the purpose of the instructions for priests on Yom Kippur found in Acharei Mot and the holiness code of Kedoshim. Guidelines keep us safe. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming Aaron’s sons.
Holiness through Jewish technologies
We no longer have Temple sacrifice and priests. Instead, we have rabbinical Judaism and a multitude of opportunities to hold space for what is greater than ourselves. We can use the temple in time, Shabbat, to connect with eternal values. We build holy community in synagogue. Our communal prayer has the ability to deepen the holiness within us individually more completely than individual meditation. We weave the words chosen by our ancestors, thereby connecting our spiritual elevation with hundreds of generations before us. And reflecting on our own mortality, we can choose to break free of the habit of living and truly sink into the holiness of each moment.
Holiness is not an attribute that can be conquered or experienced continually. It is an ideal to aspire towards. Step by step, we can choose to align ourselves with holiness, to live towards emanating holiness through our demeanor, our words, and our actions. Our most obvious signposts to help us become vessels of holiness are prayer, kashrut, and Shabbat. Daily setting aside time to refocus on Divine connection and personal meaning. Consciously choosing what we put into our bodies, and verbally expressing gratitude for the gift of food. And delineating between regular time and sacred time. These are our technologies to walk towards holiness.
27 Days of the Omer
Another Jewish path towards holiness is counting the Omer. Each day, one can reflect on a different aspect of the Sephirot and deepen one’s connection with the concepts that bring holiness into the material world. Today’s Omer count amplifies the Jewish path of holiness. Today is twenty-seven days, which is three weeks and six days of the Omer in the year 5781. יסוד שבנצח, Yesod ShebeNetzach, Bonding within Eternity. We choose people to form deep community. We prioritize bonding on an emotional and spiritual level. And through our bonding, we touch the eternal.