This week we read another double parsha, Acharei Mot – Kedoshim. While the Torah reading opens with a description of the aftermath of the death Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, for bringing some type of “strange fire” to the mishkan, and the ritual for the Kohanim, the overall theme of the second of the two parshiyot is the idea of holiness. There is an explicit command, “You shall be holy . . .” Why? Because “I the Lord am holy.” The parsha goes on to list actions that are not considered to be holy if they were done. These include using improper weights and measures in business, kilayim, the prohibition against planting two different species of plants side by side and treating people in a disrespectful manner.
What is holiness? This word often gets used but it needs definition. The Hebrew root means “separate” for some special purpose (my understanding). For example, the word for marriage in Hebrew is Kedushin. A couple have separated themselves from others to create a special relationship with each other. On Shabbat and Festivals we recite Kiddush, which through a liturgical formula we separate one day from the other six, again for a special purpose. In Parshat Yitro, HaShem refers to the Jewish people as an Am Kadosh, a holy people for it is through Torah and mitzvot the Jewish people have a special role and destiny in this world.
Holiness is not easy; it is delicate and takes much work. Shabbat is a holy day, and that holiness in manifest through the many laws regulating what is permitted and what is prohibited.
Holiness is not found in our actions towards HaShem alone, but also through our relationships with people and how we touch their lives. I have told this story before, but I like it therefore permit me to retell it.
There is a story of a monastery made up of elderly monks. No one was joining and they feared that the monastery would close. Nearby was a Jewish community. The leader of the monks went to visit the rabbi to ask what he could do. The rabbi told the monk, “I have no advice for you, but I can say that one of you is the Messiah.”
The elderly monk returned to his compatriots, somewhat dejected. He told them what the rabbi said, “One of you is the Messiah.” When his fellow monks heard this they began to treat each other as if that person was indeed the Messiah. Over time a transformation occurred in the monastery. A new level of respect and courtesy was discovered. Soon more joined. Soon the monastery was a different place, rejuvenated.
We are half way through the period of Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer. Besides counting the 49 days until Shavuot, this period of time is one of Jewish national mourning for the Talmud relates to us that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died from a plague brought about because the students did not treat each other with proper respect. Because of this, we refrain from haircuts, lives music and weddings for seven weeks. Had they followed the rabbi’s advice from our story, would we be celebrating during these days instead?
Jewish life is a like a coin. One the one side there a rituals and practices for holidays and prayer. The other is the human side, the relationship side. Just like you can’t have a one-sided coin, you can’t have a one-sided Judaism. Mitzvot are on both sides. Shabbat is a mitzvah and giving kavod (respect) to another is a mitzvah. The mitzvot are vehicles for us to sanctify not only our own lives, but also to sanctify and uplift the lives of those around us.
Just think, the next person you see, may be the Messiah.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger